Sept. 7, 2016 – Mary Bryn Concannon always wanted to attend law school. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a traditional lawyer, working on transactions or litigation.
She wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. So after Concannon graduated from U.W. Law School in 2015, she jumped on an opportunity to work for the Wounded Warrior Project in Houston, Texas, as a benefits liaison for wounded veterans.
“I do their disability claims, helping obtain benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Concannon, who focused on mental health and disability law in law school. “A law license isn’t required, but having the law degree is very helpful. I definitely feel like I’m steeped in the law every single day.”
Concannon is among a growing number of law school graduates who are obtaining so-called J.D. Advantage jobs, whether by choice or necessity. The job market for entry-level attorneys in traditional law practice is still tough, and prospective students know it. Some are avoiding law school altogether. Others are seeking alternative work.
Law School Enrollment, Applications Down
In 2014, the number of first-year law students enrolled at the 204 ABA-approved law schools dipped by 30 percent from four years prior. The last time enrollment numbers were that low, the film The Paper Chase (1973) made its debut.
org jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
First-year enrollment numbers dropped slightly (about 2.3 percent) again in 2015, and more than half of law schools reported smaller first-year class sizes last year compared to 2014, according to the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
The number of applicants to U.S. law schools also continued its downward trend, declining every year in the last five years, a 38 percent decline from 2010. The decline in applications was even higher at Wisconsin’s law schools between 2010 and 2015.
Applications dropped by 52 percent at Marquette University Law School from 2010 to 2015. At U.W. Law School, applications dropped by 54 percent.
The economic downturn of the late 2000s triggered a drastic reduction in the number of students applying to and enrolling in ABA-approved law schools, including U.W. and Marquette law schools, starting after first-year enrollment’s historic peak in 2010.
And it’s not surprising, given the high level of student loan debt that can accompany a law school education, and the limited entry-level job opportunities currently available in traditional law practice. Some may view this as a necessary economic correction for a saturated legal market, where law firm growth and hiring is still slow.
“After the market crash, a lot of big law firms were just not hiring at the rate they once were,” said Rebecca Scheller, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at U.W. Law School. “Of course, when there aren’t as many jobs available, students are not going to be pursuing law school. In the past, law school was often times seen as a safe haven in a bad market, and that’s just not the case given the jobs that are available.”
But career and admissions advisors at Marquette and U.W. law schools are starting to see more students pursue the J.D. degree with alternative career paths in mind.
“We are seeing more students than ever that are coming to law school and saying either ‘I am not going to or I might not practice law,’” said Michael Keller, assistant dean for career and professional development at U.W. Law School.
“A lot of people may end up going into government work,” Keller said. “And a number of non-law firm employers, such as accounting firms, are recruiting heavily out of law schools because, as one recruiter told me, ‘it’s easier to teach the numbers to a lawyer than the law to an MBA graduate.' Those are considered J.D. Advantage jobs.”
“In the past, law school was often times seen as a safe haven in a bad market, and that’s just not the case given the jobs that are available.” Rebecca Scheller, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at U.W. Law School.
Making Smarter Decisions
Scheller said the sharp decline in law school applications is not unique to Wisconsin’s law schools. Other Midwestern law schools saw a similar drop in applications from 2010 to 2015, which is much higher than the national average at ABA-approved schools.
“That’s something that we are trying to figure out,” Scheller said. “Some people have speculated that the Midwest region is seeing a general decline in population, and so that’s reflecting what we are seeing in our applicant pools. In addition, the number of 24-year-olds seems to be dipping nationally. So that could also be a part of it.”
With reduced applicant pools, both U.W. and Marquette have admitted fewer students in recent years, reflecting the importance of admission standards. “We want to make sure we are still admitting students that have a strong likelihood of success,” said Scheller.
Scheller has also noticed a change in the type of students that are applying to law school. That is, prospective students are making smarter choices about attending.
“We are seeing people who are making a very deliberate decision to go to law school,” Scheller said. “They are people who have really thought it through, rather than someone who just wasn’t sure what to do with their undergraduate degree.”
Paul Katzman, assistant dean for career planning at Marquette Law School, is seeing the same thing. “There is no question that prospective students are being much more discerning regarding the decision to attend law school – and, if they choose to attend law school, which law school they attend.”
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And Katzman agrees that fewer students are attending law school because they don’t know what else to do. That is, fewer see law school as a “fall-back” option.
“While there still is a healthy percentage of students who arrive without much clarity as to their career goals or even the career options that might be available to them with a law degree, the number of students in that boat does seem to be declining,” he said.
Katzman said the percentage of law school graduates who obtain J.D. Advantage positions – jobs for which “the J.D. provided a demonstrable advantage in obtaining or performing the job but does not require an active law license or involve practicing law" – has steadily increased over the past six to seven years, at Marquette and elsewhere.
“However, in my experience, many students who have pursued such alternative career paths did not arrive with such goals, but instead their focus shifted and evolved during their tenure as a law student and even, in some cases, shortly after graduation,” he said. “Nevertheless, a significant majority of Marquette students still strive for positions practicing law both when they arrive and as they approach graduation.”
Keller said the Great Recession opened a lot of eyes.
“It’s hard to imagine someone going to law school without having read or heard quite a bit about employment challenges and student debt issues,” Keller said. “In years past, I can’t tell you how many students would enter law school not knowing why.”
Law school used to be a place of last resort, for many indecisive college graduates. “They’d say: ‘I have a history degree, but I don’t want to teach. The sight of blood makes me queasy, so I can’t go to medical school. I’ll just go to law school.'”
Groups like Law School Transparency are dedicated to providing prospective students with the information necessary to make wise choices about law school, and the ABA mandates that all approved schools disclose employment and other data annually. Katzman notes the importance of doing due diligence before deciding to attend.
“They should, among other things, engage in self-assessment to ensure they have at least a minimal level of clarity as to what they hope to accomplish with a law degree, and speak with individuals who are in careers they wish to explore,” he said.
“They should also obtain insight into the qualifications typically required to gain entry into the field of interest, inquire as to resources and opportunities offered by law schools that will facilitate the pursuit of their career goal, and seek from law schools specific graduate outcomes relevant to their desired career path,” Katzman noted.
Katzman said prospective students should not hesitate to ask tough questions. “The information acquired should help them gauge whether law school will provide them the return on their investment that they are seeking,” he said.
“A number of non-law firm employers, such as accounting firms, are recruiting heavily out of law schools.” Michael Keller, assistant dean for career and professional development at U.W. Law School.
Employment: How’s it Looking?
Based on employment statistics from 2015, of the 219 U.W. Law School graduates, 142 (65 percent) had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a law license, 29 had full-time long-term J.D. Advantage jobs, and 11 were employed in other professional positions. U.W. Law School reported 14 graduates who are still unemployed but seeking jobs.
Marquette Law School reported similar numbers for 2015. Of the 229 graduates, 143 (62 percent) held full-time long-term jobs requiring a law license. Another 31 held a full-time, long-term J.D. Advantage job, and 11 held another professional position. The school reported 20 graduates who were still unemployed but seeking jobs.
Graduates in “professional positions,” for instance, would include those working as nurses, doctors, engineers, or architects, “if a J.D. was not demonstrably advantageous in obtaining the position or in performing the duties of the position.”
Of the 448 graduates of both law schools in 2015, about 61 percent stayed in-state. Of those working in law firms, the largest percentage (17 percent) worked for small firms (2-10 attorneys). About 15 percent worked in government jobs, which would include work as a public defender or prosecutor. Eleven graduates started their own solo firms.
About 29 percent of the 2015 U.W. Law School graduates found employment in Madison, and about 15 percent found employment in Milwaukee. About 47 percent of 2015 Marquette law grads are working in Milwaukee, and about 8.5 percent are in Madison.
Both Katzman and Keller said few students are seeking employment outside of metropolitan areas, where there’s an increasing demand for attorneys.
“While there always are a few students in each class who express an interest in practicing in small, rural communities, the number consistently is quite small,” Katzman said. “The overwhelming majority of students we work with in the Career Planning Center are interested in working in urban and metropolitan areas.”
“Sometimes it takes until six months after graduation where they’ve been trying and trying to find work in Milwaukee or Madison and suddenly they come to the realization that they may have to go elsewhere. It may not mean going to Antigo, but it may mean going to a mid-sized community like Janesville, Eau Claire, or La Crosse,” Keller said.
“I wish we could get to those students earlier. I’m hoping it’s not a generational thing, because the rural and mid-sized communities are areas showing demand. It’s really important for graduates to understand they can make a great life in those areas.”
“There is no question that prospective students are being much more discerning regarding the decision to attend law school.” Paul Katzman, assistant dean for career planning at Marquette Law School.
Keller and Katzman also noted the student debt is definitely on the minds of graduates as they make their career-planning decisions. Graduates now have options for loan forgiveness after 10 years if working in qualifying nonprofit or public sector jobs.
“It has become increasingly a part of the conversations we have with students in recent years,” said Katzman. “But the number of Marquette students who seek and obtain jobs that would qualify for student loan forgiveness has not risen substantially during that time.”
What’s the future hold for law school attendance? Scheller doesn’t think law schools will ever see the same volume of applicants that came in before the economic crash. But Keller thinks diversification of employers may bring slow and steady growth.
“I think we’ll see steady or slow growth in the traditional areas,” Keller said. “But the biggest thing that might be happening is diversification. Big accounting firms and other organizations are starting to look very strongly at law students as potential candidates.
“That may be a growth area for law school attendance or make-up for the decline in other traditional areas of law,” he said. “Diversification is going to help some.”