Lessons from the law school disruption

How these higher ed institutions respond to steep drops in enrollment

There were more than 100,000 applicants to American Bar Association-accredited law schools in the fall of 2004. In the three years prior, the number of applicants rose almost 30 percent.

At the time, most law schools could expect yearly increases in tuition and applications. For many universities, the law school was seen as a cash cow because they were able to enroll bigger and better new 1L (first year) classes with little expenditure of institutional financial aid.

By 2015, though, the number of applicants had declined from that 2004 peak by 46 percent, a result of a shrinking job market for lawyers following the Great Recession and “offshoring” of some legal work to countries with lower labor costs.

Most law schools were forced to change the way they recruited, admitted, awarded and enrolled students to respond to this unprecedented drop in demand. For example, many who gave little consideration to the use of scholarships during the boom years now employ sophisticated financial aid leveraging strategies to meet enrollment goals.

Respond to market disruption

Where law schools once lagged behind undergraduate programs in terms of market responsiveness and sophistication of recruitment practices, many institutions are now using best-practice recruitment strategies to enroll their 1L classes. The lessons they learned on responding to a major market disruption applies to undergraduate or graduate programs as well:

  • Review your institutional mission statement and goals regularly and revise if necessary. A mission statement is not something that should change very often, but a review at regular intervals is a useful exercise, especially to assess the alignment between the mission and institutional goals, which may change periodically.
  • Regularly review your program offerings and those of your primary competitors. Identify the distinctive elements of your degree programs. Are you the only school offering a particular program; the only one with a particular pedagogy? Play to your strengths by providing data-driven proof statements of institutional value.
  • Make a habit of sharing recruitment ideas among schools, colleges and programs within your institution. Your markets may differ, but effective recruitment tactics are often transferable.
  • Perhaps the most important lesson from law schools’ responses to a declining market is the critical need to emphasize the institution’s value proposition. Increasing calls for greater transparency and precision regarding employment outcomes eventually led to an American Bar Association requirement that every law school annually post employment statistics on its website and a breakdown of positions by type of industry.
  • In your enrollment and budget planning, consider the reality of possible enrollment declines, especially if your institution is in a region where the number of high school graduates is expected to continue to decline in the near future.
  • Assess opportunities to grow tuition revenue without increasing enrollment, like reducing institutional aid for high-demand programs or other segments of the admitted student pool that are more price-inelastic.
  • A number of law schools have reacted to enrollment declines with curriculum innovations. Some are experimenting with two-year degree programs, including Southwestern Law School and Pepperdine in California, and Drexel in Philadelphia. Many law schools have increased curricular flexibility by expanding opportunities for part-time and working students. Joint degree programs combining master’s degrees with a J.D. are popular.

Ultimately, law schools must come to grips with the near certainty that the reduced demand for lawyers is a new normal for the profession.

Though the prospects for traditional undergraduate and graduate education are not nearly so dire, there are lessons to be learned from the ways in which law schools have responded to a severe disruption in the student market.

Bill Berg is an enrollment management consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

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