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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cooley Law In-Line with National Trends in Legal Industry

By now, we've heard the familiar tales-of-woe within the legal industry: too many lawyers; no jobs for newly-minted lawyers; young graduates are slaves to their law school tuition debts; and, the legal service industry is contracting.

With such a gloomy backdrop, the nation's largest law school, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, provides an interesting petre dish to test these national trends.  Sure enough, Cooley seems to bear out what is happening in law schools and legal service markets across the country.

The first trend of note is the steady decline in law school enrollment.  According to statistics published by the Law School Admission Council [publishers of the LSAT entrance exam], law schools have experienced more than a 30% decline in enrollment since 2003.

In an article last week in the Lansing State Journal, Cooley Dean Don Leduc admitted that his school's admissions took a hit; dropping by nearly 27% and expected to drop by another 15% when classes resume next week.  Dean Leduc told the LSJ that many law school applicants across the country regard Cooley as their "backup" choice.  Since law schools across the country are plunging ever deeper into their applicant pools to fill their classes, many students no longer need to play their Cooley card.

It is no secret, as the LSJ points out, that Cooley Law is one of the least selective ABA accredited schools in the country, and that out-of-state students make-up a significant portion of its student body.  Presumably, from sea to shining sea, students that cannot get into other law schools around the country flock to Cooley for their "ticket".

The next trend in the industry is the curious response of law school administrators to their steadily declining enrollments: raising tuition.  The National Law Journal has analyzed tuition rates at private law schools like Cooley and reports a 4% average tuition hike for this fall.

This year, the average cost for a single year of tuition in a private law school will crack the $40,000 mark for the first time in history.  In line with this trend, Dean Leduc announced that Cooley was raising its tuition by a whopping 8%.  This fall, students will pay $37,140 to attend Cooley Law School on a full-time basis.

Next trend: is law school worth the expense and effort?  Many voices are saying no.

One way to determine the value of a law degree is to track employment statistics among recent law school graduates, as required by the ABA to maintain a law school's accreditation.  Nationally, the average salary for 2011 law graduates is $60,000; down from $72,000 in 2009.

In related litigation, Cooley was recently sued on a fraud theory in federal court by a group of its alumni.  The law suit was tossed for lack of merit; it was really the ABA's vague reporting regime that was indicted in the case.  The issue involved how Cooley reported employment statistics for its recent graduates.

Earlier this year, the ABA announced that only 55% of recent law graduates held full-time employment that required bar passage to hold the position.  For Cooley, the numbers were well-below that mark.  The LSJ article reported that only 37.5% Cooley's 2011 graduates held full-time law positions.  Of those legally engaged grads, a significant percentage [20%] were solo practitioners straight of of law school; a dubious proposition if you are facing more than $100,000 in student loan debt and have zero experience representing clients.

To combat this negativity, Dean Leduc has recently released his own report, with commentary, citing statistics from the National Association of Legal Professionals and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, concluding the employment rate for law graduates is higher than the overall national average and the unemployment rate across this group is lower.

Regardless of the forecast, lawyers will always be with us.  We agree with Dean Leduc that future legal professionals should not be swayed by the current obvious gloom.

Instead, be persistent and follow your dream.  There is nothing more fulfilling than doing what you love to do for your profession.

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