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Minnesota’s law schools feel the pain as student applications decline

Several schools scramble to develop new programs and make other radical changes.

There's no reason to think William Mitchell College of Law isn't facing similar law school challenges.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Thursday morning Don Lewis walked into his office at Hamline University, where he is dean of the College of Law, clutching the folded up, unread copy of the New York Times he hadn’t gotten to read at breakfast. He sat down, cracked it open — and promptly raced back out to share a front-page story with his staff.

There on page A1 was an article about the plummeting number of applicants to U.S. law schools and the plummeting number of jobs for new lawyers. The story quoted a number of legal academics saying the combination is a sign it’s time for big changes.

No kidding, Lewis can’t help chuckling. Hamline has already made several of the radical shifts more vaunted programs mentioned they were considering, including the deliberate opening of its programs to students who have no intention of earning JD degrees or becoming lawyers.

His legal certificate programs in areas such as health law compliance and international business law are full and interest in a new master’s degree suggests it will be, too. Meanwhile, interest from traditional law students is flagging. 

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Nationwide, the number of applications to law schools for fall 2013 is down 20 percent over the same time period last year and a total of 38 percent from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. The number has hit a 36-year low, according to the Times.

Tuition has more than doubled over the last decade and student debt-loads have mushroomed correspondingly. Last spring, the American Bar Association released survey data showing that nine months after graduation just 55 percent of the class of 2011 had found full-time work.

Of those that did, very few walked into big-buck private firms as associates. Indeed, faced with downward economic pressures not unlike those that have wracked health care in recent decades, the firms are re-evaluating the model, too.

Drop in applications

Minnesota’s law schools — already under competitive pressure given that there are four — are feeling the pain. Hamline and the University of St. Thomas School of Law have both seen a drop in applications commensurate with the 15 percent to 20 percent average in the ABA’s Great Lakes region.

Applications will roll in for a few more months, but St. Thomas may admit a class of 130, compared with 156 in 2011, according to spokesman Chato Hazelbaker. Hamline’s incoming class, too, will contract even though last year’s was 30 percent smaller than the year before, said Lewis.

Administrators who track admissions data at William Mitchell College of Law were not available this week, but there’s no reason to think the program isn’t facing similar challenges.

As a perennial fixture in the U.S. News & World Report top 20 listings, which prospective students correlate to their market prospects upon graduating, the University of Minnesota Law School is in a somewhat different position. Between 2007 and 2010, it experienced a 44 percent increase in applications. Right now, they are down 7 percent.

Most smaller law schools are still concerned with their U.S. News rankings, even though many have long grumbled that the underlying calculus includes research dollars, big libraries and other features they can’t afford.

Some, like Hamline, are deliberately choosing to play a different game. Lewis’ bet is that his non-JD degree and certificate programs will continue to take off because, even though firms aren’t hiring, there are lots of fields — particularly those involving regulatory compliance — which have a heavy demand for people with specialized legal skills.

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Skills training

St. Thomas is taking another approach mentioned by some of the scholars in the Times piece: Beefing up skills-training opportunities for students — something law schools have largely left to employers in the past.

St. Thomas offers nine skills clinics, four of which were added in the last year. Participants in the new programs can leave school with experience in appellate, nonprofit and consumer bankruptcy practice. The college has also opened the nation’s first federal commutations clinic.

It’s most proud of another unique feature that earned it a first-place ranking for “externships” from National Jurist. Students receive one-on-one mentoring from practicing attorneys in the community in all three years of law school.

As their interests shift, they may change mentors. Ideally, they will graduate with a professional network that will smooth their path.

All of the law schools now spend more time talking to prospective and current students about the job market and career trajectories. At St. Thomas, a greater share of applicants is showing up with very specialized aspirations.

A contributor to the blog Legal Whitepaper and associate director of St. Thomas’ Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, professor Jerry Organ writes and speaks about the changing face of legal education.

Speaking in general and not about his employer, he said lots of programs are engaged, albeit quietly, in reviews. Fewer students mean less revenue, which at some point will force layoffs.

And some are beginning to rethink their idea of who an ideal law student is. For example, few currently consider candidates’ “soft skills,” such as their relationship-building abilities. Students who have both high LSAT scores and these desirable character traits are likely to do better upon entering the job market.

The numbers are still rolling in, but Organ is betting he will soon be able to venture a further prediction: Admissions applications by students in their senior year of college and/or with higher LSAT scores and GPAs will be declining faster than the rest.

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“The decline seems a little more pronounced at the top of the profile, where more are choosing not to apply,” he said. “There will be more attractive alternatives.”