Date: May 30th, 2012 9:30 AM
By Katherine Mangan
With applications to law schools plummeting and job offers harder than ever for graduates to come by, a growing number of schools are forgoing badly needed tuition dollars and reducing the size of their incoming classes. But not all of them.
Thomas M. Cooley Law School was already said to be the nation's largest, with about 3,700 students on four campuses in Michigan, when 111 aspiring lawyers sporting navy-blue "Inaugural Class" T-shirts filed in for the first day of classes this month on its new campus, in Riverview, Fla., near Tampa.
The school, which accepts 80 to 90 percent of its applicants—in three, rather than the usual one or two, admissions cycles each year—had begun planning for the Tampa Bay campus, as it's known, before the downturn in the economy.
But while other new law schools that were in the works quietly put their plans on hold or scrapped them altogether, Cooley surprised some observers by enrolling nearly twice as many students at the new location as it had planned. "Enrollment exceeded our expectations," says Jeffrey L. Martlew, associate dean of the Florida campus. Plans call for it to grow to 700 students, 25 full-time faculty members, and 30 to 40 adjunct professors over the next three years.
Reducing enrollment goes against the grain of a school that prides itself on opening the doors of legal education to working-class and minority students as well as part-time students who can't afford to quit their jobs, Cooley officials say.
But critics question whether the school is doing these students any favors by admitting them at a time when the job market in the legal profession is in a slump and the average debt per student leaving Cooley is $110,000.
Several other schools, concerned about reaching too deeply into their applicant pools to accept students who might not graduate or find jobs, have taken the opposite approach, by shrinking rather than growing.
"We need to reboot legal education," says Frank H. Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, which plans to reduce enrollment by 240 over the next three years, a drop of 20 percent.
"There are too many law schools, too many lawyers, and too many law students." he says. "Somebody has to be first to say, 'Stop the craziness.'"
Nationally, only about 64 percent of law-school graduates in 2010 had landed full-time jobs requiring a law license nine months after graduation, according to the National Association for Law Placement. The median, full-time starting salary for 2010 graduates fell 13 percent from the previous year, to $63,000. (Figures for 2011 graduates aren't available yet.)
But Cooley officials insist that the job outlook isn't nearly as bleak as the national press, as well as the so-called law-school-scam blogs, have portrayed it.
"One of the things we battle against is a misconception out there about employment for people with law degrees," says Paul J. Zelenski, associate dean of enrollment and student services on Cooley's main campus, in Lansing.
"We view it like an M.B.A., which is a very versatile degree that prepares students for a variety of important tasks in society," he says. "We encourage people to look at the broad view of what you can do with a law degree."
William Braden, a real-estate broker in the Tampa area who was looking for a career switch, is among the students who enrolled at Cooley's new campus. Mr. Braden, who has been in real estate for 25 years and has a family to support, wanted to attend law school part time so he could keep working.
"There's no doubt it's a risk," he says of his decision. "But let's face it, it's tough all over, and this seemed like a good opportunity for a switch."
He says he was reassured by references on Cooley's Web site to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It estimates unemployment among lawyers at 1.5 percent in 2010, "far below the national unemployment rate of 9.6%," according to the law school's summary. (Skeptics of Cooley's interpretation point out that it is unclear how many of the employed lawyers are working in fields that don't require a law degree.)
The law school went on to dismiss reports questioning the value of a legal education today as "anecdotal, unbalanced, and lacking in factual support."
But clearly, potential students are taking such questions seriously. Nationally, applications to law schools fell 15.3 percent for this fall, according to the Law School Admission Council. It was the second year of double-digit decreases in admissions; the number of students taking the Law School Admission Test this year indicates more of the same for next year.
As a result, more and more law schools are cutting their entering class sizes.
The 20-percent cut at Hastings was planned even before this year's 7-percent drop in applications. The school, which rejects three-quarters of its applicants, could easily match the 425 first-year slots it filled last fall, Mr. Wu says.
"But that would be morally wrong," he says. "Filling the class would be bad for society and bad for the individuals" who will struggle to find jobs.
Law school is still a good bet for some people, Mr. Wu adds. "A J.D. is a good investment, and more people should have some legal literacy. But that doesn't mean that a J.D. is a good investment for everyone, or that it's a good investment at every law school or at any price."
A smaller, stronger class will produce fewer students who struggle to graduate and find jobs, he says. The law school's reputation, and potentially its national ranking, could receive a boost if job-placement rates improve.
Hastings has more flexibility than some other law schools to cut enrollment and make do with fewer tuition dollars, Mr. Wu says. Unlike law schools that are treated like cash cows by their universities, Hastings neither gives to nor receives money from the University of California.
While he would like to see more law schools slash their enrollments, Mr. Wu says he realizes that isn't always realistic. "Some observers have pointed out that it's fine and dandy for Wu to go about this because he doesn't have anyone above him" who's taking a share of the revenue, he says.
George Washington University Law School, which enrolled 474 J.D. students in the fall of 2011, plans to enroll fewer than 450 this fall and to continue gradually reducing enrollment over the next few years, based on the number and quality of applicants.
Applications were down 15 percent this admissions cycle, mirroring the percentage nationally.
The law school's dean, Paul Schiff Berman, says cutting the class size will help ensure that the quality of the student body doesn't slip as well as provide smaller classes and a more supportive environment.
"It doesn't do students any favor if we admit them and they struggle and get poor grades and accordingly their job prospects are diminished," he says.
Other law schools that have announced plans to reduce enrollments include Albany Law School, Creighton University School of Law, and Touro Law Center.
Meanwhile, the public battle between Lincoln Memorial University's Duncan School of Law and the American Bar Association over the ABA's decision to deny provisional accreditation to the Tennessee school has prompted debate in legal-education circles about how many law schools the nation needs.
Cooley officials believe that with the number of lawyers who will soon be retiring and what some consider the cyclical nature of the job market, there's no need to turn off the spigot on new law schools, including those that dwell in the lower tiers of national rankings.
"Thomas Cooley is never going to rank high in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, because our philosophy is totally different," says Mr. Martlew, the associate dean. "Theirs is based on the exclusiveness of the law school. The harder it is to get in, the higher the school will rank."
Cooley's mission, he says, is based on inclusiveness and in giving students practical experience so they can hit the ground running when they graduate.
To counter what the law school considers the elitist view of academe, Cooley's founder, Thomas E. Brennan, a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, came up with his own ranking, last published in 2010.
It's based largely on the size of the student body, the square footage of the library, and the school's diversity and affordability. According to those metrics, in 2010 he deemed Thomas Cooley second only to Harvard Law School.