May 21, 2015

UT Law School Feeling the Squeeze of Falling Admissions


Christiaan Cleary, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, is confident the soft job market for lawyers will rebound. “Lawyers are indispensable,” he said. Photo by Fernanda Del Toro/Reporting Texas

By Gloria Fan
For Reporting Texas

The job market for lawyers is in a slump, but law student Christiaan Cleary isn’t losing any sleep.

He has no doubt he’ll land a good position when he graduates from the University of Texas at Austin Law School in two years. He’s banking on an improving economy and UT’s ranking as the nation’s 15th-best law school.

“Top-tier law students have nothing to worry about,” Cleary said. “I am confident in getting a job.”

Cleary’s Class of 2017 has just 301 students – down 23 percent from 389 in 2010. UT Law, despite its high standing in U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings, has not been immune to the steep decline nationally in law school applications and admissions. Many experts say a weak job market is the big reason for the national trend, as it discourages some students from going to law school and taking on more debt on top of whatever they borrowed for their undergraduate education.

From 2010 to 2014, the number of first-year law students nationwide fell nearly 28 percent – from 52,488 full- and part-time students to 37,924, according to the American Bar Association. Total enrollment was 119,775, the lowest since 1987, the ABA reported. Applications during that period fell 37 percent, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing data from the National Law Journal.

A soft job market for lawyers is the main reason fewer people are applying to law schools, said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a Georgia-based nonprofit that focuses on legal education issues and data.

“Years ago, law school was seen as a ticket to financial security … Now, the commonly understood narrative has entirely flipped,” he said. “Law school is now not a ticket to financial security, especially when the only thing law schools guarantee is student debt and a deceptive job market.”

The National Association for Law School Placement said 84.5 percent of the Class of 2013 had jobs nine months after the students graduated. The rate had declined for six straight years after peaking in 2007, just before the economy went into a tailspin.

UT grads did better, with about 86 percent employed nine months after graduation, the association reported.

Chris Roberts, executive director of communications at UT Law, said the school had not changed its recruiting or its approach to helping students prepare for their careers.

“We’re doing what we’ve always been doing by educating and working with students throughout their time at UT to prepare them for the robust legal job market.”

Roberts said UT has been accepting fewer students to fit both fewer applications and the state of the job market. “In this time, we would want to accept as many students as there are jobs in the legal market, and that is reflected in our enrollment,” Roberts said.

Aside from its good ranking, UT has something else in its favor: tuition that is by far the lowest among the 15 highest-ranked law schools in the country. In-state tuition for the just-completed school year was $33,612. The next lowest tuition was $48,666 at the University of California at Berkeley, according to US. News. The most expensive school was No. 1-ranked Columbia University, at $60,274.

The 82 percent of law students nationwide who borrow money for education graduate with debts averaging $118,253, according to U.S. News. UT’s average, however, was $100,868.

Roberts said 2013 graduates got median starting salaries of $100,000 a year.

Another advantage for UT law students: The Texas legal job market is large, with better prospects for law grads than in some other states, said McEntee of Law School Transparency.

“Houston and Dallas both are major markets. Austin and San Antonio are not as large, but these four cities combined generally make Texas a great state for legal jobs, especially considering the high employment rate” for graduates of Texas law schools, he said.

Cleary is nothing if not optimistic.

“If anything, I expected to benefit from the eventual bouncing back of the market, and from what I can tell, the market is starting to recover,” he said. “Lawyers are indispensable. Crimes are still going to be committed, people are still going to die, doctors are going to continue to occasionally screw up, and there is no end to the amount of civil suits a population can file. At the end of the day, the legal market cannot stay down for too long.”