Law school is getting a makeover in an era of plunging applications and slimmer job opportunities.
This fall, Campbell University’s law school in Raleigh opened its doors to part-time students who can take up to six years to finish their law degree. Eighteen students – primarily working adults and parents – enrolled in Campbell Flex.
Earlier this month, Elon University’s law school in Greensboro announced an entire top-to-bottom redesign of its program. Starting next fall, Elon students will complete law school in 2 1/2 years, compared with the traditional three.
They will participate in “residencies,” gaining contacts and professional experience while in school. And they’ll pay less – $14,000 less in tuition toward their degree, which will cost about $100,000.
The newfangled options aim to revamp the law school experience and appeal to those who are reluctant to put their lives and livelihoods on hold at a time of dwindling job prospects for lawyers.
The overall employment rate for law school graduates fell for the sixth year in 2013 to 84.5 percent, according to the National Association for Law Placement. The class of 2013’s unemployment rate was up to 12.9 percent, but those who found work had higher salaries, on average.
One consultant, Economic Modeling Specialists, estimated that through 2015, there would be roughly 500 job openings a year in North Carolina but double the number of bar exam passers.
A weak job market has prompted some to question the value of a law degree, which usually requires heavy student loans. Since the recession, interest in law school has declined dramatically. In 2009-10 nationally, 171,500 hopefuls took the Law School Admission Test; this year, the number was down to 105,500, according to the Law School Admission Council.
Meanwhile, the number of law schools has grown from 183 in 2001 to 201 in 2013, according to Standard & Poor’s Rating Services, which last year reported that the sector faces “significant credit risk.” However, the agency said, more attentive management and new education models could offset that risk in a market where demand may be permanently altered.
Elon faculty and administrators spent two years “reverse engineering” the law school curriculum, said Luke Bierman, who became dean in June. It was clear, he said, that this was not a time for incremental change.
The thinking is this: No longer do students have to spend so much time working through cases and slogging through old-style Socratic method classes. Instruction on legal doctrine is less important now. Anyone can look up legal cases on the Internet.
“We really need to focus on analysis, that judgment – how to use the law, how to counsel people,” Bierman said. “We think the best way to get students prepared to do that is to give them experience doing it.”
The changes mirror recommendations in a January report from an American Bar Association Task Force, which called for more innovation, experimentation and skills training at U.S. law schools, as well as rethinking the price structure.
The emphasis on experiential learning may give Elon students a leg up in their job search. While in school, they’ll be surrounded by a four-member professional advising team – a faculty adviser, a practicing attorney mentor, an executive coach and a career consultant.
‘Right for the times’
Abigail Seymour, 47, a first-year law student at Elon, is a little jealous of next year’s incoming students.
“It’s really right for the times,” she said of the remake. “I think the legal profession is not at all what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. … I think this is what the future will look like.”
Victoria Hinton, 25, a second-year Elon student, said the residency component, similar to the medical school model, will put students physically in a networking vibe.
“One of the things I learned pretty early on was the importance of networking and getting yourself out there,” Hinton said.
Elon’s law school was born in 2006 with 115 first-year students. Applications hit a high of 898 in 2012, but plummeted to 604 this year. The new class is 112 students, and the goal ahead is for 125-140 students per class, Bierman said.
The shortened path to a degree will save students tuition and living expenses. They will be able to take the bar exam in February instead of summer. But the redesigned curriculum is the driving force behind the change, Bierman said.
Students will learn the basics their first year and do a residency with a prosecutor, lawyer or judge in the second year, while continuing contact with faculty. After the residency, the students will bring their work experiences back to the classroom. Finally, they will be offered “bridge courses” to prepare for the job market.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school has not changed its curriculum but has expanded career development and this year doubled summer stipends for students who want to try public-interest law, said Paul Rollins, associate dean for student affairs.
Applications at UNC have dropped by 49 percent since 2010, according to figures released by the school, but rose slightly this year from 2013. The size of the entering class has dropped by 22 percent since 2011.
UNC, a public law school, will remain a magnet for applicants at a time when people are increasingly concerned about student debt, Rollins said.
“Some of the newer schools are looking for ways to distinguish themselves in a competitive market,” he said.
Rollins said another dip in June LSAT test takers nationally may mean that law school applications may not have hit rock bottom yet. But there are some positive signs, including an uptick in summer jobs for law students, he said.
Campbell’s law dean, Rich Leonard, said while applications were flat this year, the school experienced a 50 percent increase in its yield, or the number of accepted students who enrolled. That translated to the second-biggest class Campbell has ever had. Almost a third of them are the new part-timers.
Everyone is trying to figure out what the legal job market will look like as the U.S. economy rebuilds, Leonard said. But he has a prediction. “I think three years from now it’s going to be a good thing to be a lawyer,” he said.
When the recession first hit, there was a surge of people headed to law school in 2009-10. Once they graduated, the jobs weren’t there.
Now, he said, there’s a silver lining to the national decline in law school interest.
The ones who show up are really committed.
“They want to be lawyers,” Leonard said, “and boy does it show up here.”