Law Students

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Law school enrollment declines mean more bargaining power for prospective students.

Summary: Law school enrollment has declined across the nation, giving many prospective students access to lower tuition at various law schools.

According to the New York Times, law students are gaining more and more control over law school admissions as the schools remain desperate to keep enrollment up. In the past, these students could only hope that they were admitted to law school; however, this is no longer the case.


Law school enrollment has decreased in recent years, which has resulted in financial instability for many law schools across the United States. The abysmal legal job market, along with accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in law school debt, has made many students wary of applying. During the economic crisis, many law firms cut attorney positions and have not refilled them.

Here is a previous article about low enrollment at law schools.

Professor Daniel B. Rodriguez is the dean of Northwestern University School of Law. At the end of the summer, he was negotiating tuition rates with incoming students—unheard of in years past. “It’s insane,” he said, “We’re in hand-to-hand combat with other schools.”

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In hopes of boosting enrollment, many law schools have reduced tuition. The University of Arizona, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Iowa have all cut tuition. Wayne State University Law School announced that it would even freeze tuition through the 2015-2016 school year, offer at least $4,000 in scholarships for each incoming student, and provide at least $1 million in scholarships to current students at the law school.

The Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island cut its tuition by 18 percent, down from $41,400 to $33,792. That rate has been locked in for three school years for incoming students. Michael J. Yelnosky, the dean of the law school, said, “We realize we are not returning to the frothy enrollment days. We had to right-size to be able to deliver the same education.” The law school also combined some law school activities with its parent university, Roger Williams.

Although law schools were once a cash cow for universities, many university-affiliated law schools are growing more and more dependent on their parent universities to make it through this rough period. Many law schools are fearful of suffering the same fate as Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which was forced to lay off staff and announced in the fall that it would close its Ann Arbor campus.

Thomas M. Cooley Law School is not alone—Albany Law School in New York has also cut faculty positions due to a 34 percent decline in enrollment. Last year, 187 students enrolled in the incoming class; this year, only 123 enrolled.

According to the American Bar Association, the number of first-year law students nationwide declined 11 percent from 2012 to 2013. Over a three-year period, enrollment dropped 24 percent. In 2013, the incoming class had 39,675 students, making it the smallest first-year class since the 1970s. Roughly 135 of the country’s accredited law schools noted a drop in first-year enrollment that year as well. This drop accounted for two-thirds of all accredited law schools in the country.

Heres an article about the 11 percent drop.

Employment numbers are grim as well. Only 57 percent of the class of 2013 had a full-time job that required passing the bar exam nine months after graduation. Hence, many students are terrified of being burdened upwards of $150,000 in law school debt with no job to pay the loans. Professor Rodriguez explained, “Students are voting with their feet, and demanding a better deal. And they are willing to spend less.”

Northwestern, like many other schools, has sought donations from alumni to increase financial aid for incoming students. This year, nearly three-quarters of first-year students received financial aid. Only 30 percent received aid in 2009. However, the school’s tuition has actually increased to $56,134. Five years ago, it was $47,202.

Northwestern enrolled 244 first-year students this year. In 2009, it enrolled 271 incoming students. Although many schools that have lowered tuition have seen an increase in enrollment, many schools have lowered their admission requirements, such as LSAT scores and college GPAs.

Emily Trieber is a 24-year-old first-year student at Roger Williams. She said she saw her education as a “business contract.” She saved for two years while working for a private ambulance company in Connecticut. She was accepted by Roger Williams, and was awarded a scholarship that helped lower tuition costs significantly. She also boldly asked for additional aid: “Then, I asked for more,” she explained. “It doesn’t hurt to ask.” With her scholarships, she is paying around $20,000 to $25,000 per year for school.

Trieber plans to practice in family law or elder law. She added that many of her classmates received discounts on their legal educations. She noted that even without her scholarship, she “…is still paying a lot less than [she] would have been at the other schools [she] applied to in the Northeast.”

There are many who remain skeptical of the benefits of tuition cuts, however. Critics say that these schools buffer their low enrollment numbers with students who receive lower LSAT scores and lower college grades. This raises concerns that these students will not be able to pass a state bar exam, which is a requirement to practice law.

Here’s an article about tuition and enrollment.

Northwestern, along with other top-ranking law schools, has seen such declines in their scores. In 2009, the median LSAT score at Northwestern for first-year students was 170; this year, it was 168. However, the first-year student GPA actually increased from 3.72 five years ago to 3.75 this year. In addition, the Law School Admissions Council reported that the number of students who sat for the LSAT exam was 8.1 percent lower this year, and roughly 50 percent below the same testing period in 2009.

As for Roger Williams, the median LSAT score was 148, and the median GPA was 3.16 for a majority of first-year students. For first-year students in 2009, the median LSAT score was 152, and the median GPA was a 3.26. Law schools keep careful records of incoming students’ LSAT scores and grade point averages because they seek top spots in national rankings.

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Although the outlook for many law students is bleak right now, many law schools have worked hard to cut costs and even expand offerings in joint degrees, for example, in law and medicine. Many see faculty cuts as an absolute last resort, and do not want to implement cuts in degrees. Such measures would tarnish law schools’ reputation.

Professor Rodriguez commented, “I don’t get how the math adds up for the number of schools and the number of students. We all know it’s happening, and we are all taking steps that urgent, not desperate, times call for.”

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