According to the American Bar Association, first-year enrollment in law schools fell by 11 percent this year, to its lowest level since 1977. First thing you know is that somewhere, somehow, someone is blaming it on the Affordable Care Act.
This is a precipitous decline from just 2010, when a record 52,000 newbies entered law school. Unfortunately, that’s about the same time reports began emerging that graduates were having a difficult time finding work, which also meant they were unable to pay off their student loans, which amounted to as much as $150,000. That’s a heaping load of discouragement, right there.
The increased pressure to land a job after law school also forced current students to be more grade-obsessed, with professors lecturing on the fine points of trial theory, only to be interrupted by a student calling out, “Will this be on the cross-exam?”
The ABA report didn’t address whether lawyers are currently “reproducing” in sustainable numbers, or where those discouraged applicants are going instead.
Still, we’re a long way off before a folk-singing group laments “Where Have All The Lawyers Gone?” and the species atticus finchus becomes extinct. The U.S. still retains a comfortable global lead in the category of Most Attorneys Per Capita, with more than twice as many per person as Germany and five times more than France.
President Obama saw the situation as sufficiently worrisome, though, to weigh in on it last August. The president suggested that in order to reduce the financial burden on students, law schools chop a year off their three year degree programs. Critics responded that President Obama should set an example and chop a year off his term, first.
Other possible reasons that law as a profession is, pun intended, losing its appeal, include perceived easier ways to make a lucrative living and the public’s low approval rating of attorneys, which consistently places them in the company of axe murderers, members of Congress and axe murdering members of Congress.
Yet another is the loss of romantic allure associated with lawyering, due to the overwhelming majority of criminal cases being pled out instead of going to trial. Gone are the days when, with things looking their darkest for his client, Perry Mason would dramatically whirl around and point to a random person in the courtroom and declare, “YOU killed Jeremy Harrison!” and improvise a wildly implausible scenario that nonetheless turned out to be spot on, saving his client from the gallows. Nowadays, drama of this type mostly occurs twenty years later, when the Innocence Project or the like obtains DNA evidence exonerating some poor shlub wasting away on Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit.
Be that as it may, the jury seems to be in that enrollments are not expected to rise, and may continue to decline, in the coming years. It’s clear, then, that the legal profession needs to reach young, impressionable minds, which is why I call on Dick Wolf to start working on “Law & Order: Sesame Street Edition,” and PBS get cracking on “Barney the Litigator.”
But those are long-term fixes. In the short run, the profession has to do something to offset the drop in “demand” partly caused by a steady decline in the crime rate. A few years ago, Republicans in particular went on the warpath against “frivolous lawsuits,” an issue that was really a red herring, as depicted by the documentary Hot Coffee.
But now, more frivolous lawsuits are just what is needed! Aside from creating instant work, filing lawsuits without merit would be a great way for recent graduates to break in, as they have both a romantic “Don Quixote” facet to them and require great ingenuity to make plausible. If said suit is dismissed, there’s no harm done, and should it prevail, the young attorney who brought it can henceforth write his own ticket.
In any case, as usual Shakespeare described the enrollment crisis best. Most people are not familiar with the entire passage, which reads, “First thing we do, we kill all the lawyers by placing onerous obstacles in front of them so as to gradually deplete their ranks until they die a natural death.”