Law school applications and enrollment numbers are dropping at UVA, and tuition, in response, continues to rise. Faced with the prospect of paying off a six figure loan tab in a brutal job market, students are re-evaluating whether or not a law degree is still a worthy investment, and experts expect nearly a dozen schools around the country to close over the next decade.
The University of Virginia School of Law, still ranked among the top 10 law schools in the country, is responding to the pressure by shrinking class sizes and offering its students more practical experience outside the classroom. While top tier schools are faring the best in the inhospitable environment, annual tuition at schools like UVA is over $50,000 per year for out-of-state students.
According to a January 30 article in The New York Times, only four of some 200 law schools nationwide saw increases in applications this year. UVA Law’s enrollment has dropped steadily since 2007, and at 1,078 this year, is the lowest it’s been in a decade.
UVA Law spokesperson Mary Wood issued the following statement:
“Although the number of applicants to UVA Law has declined over the past couple of years, we still have more applications than we did a decade ago. As of today, just a few months into the application cycle, we have received 5,000 applications for admission to a class of about 350 students. By comparison, we received a total of 4,400 applications for admission for the class that entered in the fall of 2002. So, applications are down somewhat in the short run, but they are still up in the long run — and admission to UVA Law has continued to grow more competitive.
While the economy has affected the number of applications and the number of legal jobs nationwide, we have stepped up the level of our career counseling services to better support students, and our students likewise are stepping up to meet the challenges of a tighter market. When we surveyed online information in March 2012, we had graduates working in each of the top 100 firms in the country. Surveys of law firm hiring partners and recruiters consistently rank UVA among the leading schools for recruitment. Many of our students also choose to work in public service or clerk for judges after law school, including at the Supreme Court. Only Harvard, Yale and Stanford law schools have had more alumni clerk at the Supreme Court from 2005 to today.”
Officials say the University is doing everything it can to compete and combat the economic downturn, starting with its approach to job placement.
Senior Assistant Dean for Career Services Kevin Donovan said the students he works with face a whole new set of challenges than when he was in law school 25 years ago.
Then, he said, universities offered few classes that featured face-to-face interaction with real clients. Now that large firms dominate the legal market and expect new employees to have practical, hands-on experience and hit the ground running, more and more professors are trying to expose their students to both the intellectual and practical sides of law. Students start feeling pressure to pick a career path as early as their second semester, and most spend their summers working as legal interns for firms they hope will hire them full-time after graduation.
“Employers tell us over and over again that the candidates with work experience have an advantage,” Donovan said.
Third year law student Austin Raynor already has a job lined up clerking for a federal judge after graduation. He said he’s in better shape than some in other graduate programs, who face even tougher job markets if they don’t want a career in academia.
“Law school is, comparatively, still a good investment,” he said. “I’m learning a trade skill.”
Professor Thomas Hafemeister said the changes in the economics of the profession are forcing changes in pedagogy as well. For instance, he caps most of his classes at 18 students now.
“If we are going to be more practice oriented, we need smaller classes,” he said. “So we need more faculty, and tuition’s going to go up.”
In the past, Hafemeister said, students could rest assured they would quickly pay off their debt after graduation. Now, many of them have reached a tipping point. A $1,000 increase in tuition can break the bank, he said, and students are even asking to “borrow” casebooks in order to save $100 here and there, a level of frugality he’s not seen before.
Hafemeister said he understands why costs are rising, but he hates to see students make tough decisions based on money.
“Law school should be about opening up doors, not closing them,” he said.