Law school enrollment may be on the rise

By Rick Ruggles
Omaha World-Herald

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Many smart, ambitious undergrads no longer automatically think of law school as their path to success.

The recession of the late 2000s resulted in a nationwide drop in student interest in law school and opportunities for young lawyers.

Numbers might be ticking up slightly now, based on Law School Admission Test statistics and first-year class sizes in law schools nationwide.

The University of Nebraska College of Law in particular showed a big gain in enrollment last fall, benefiting from a national publication’s assertion two straight years that NU offers the best value in the nation, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

First-year enrollments this school year at other regional law colleges vary, with Creighton’s and the University of Iowa’s first-year classes down somewhat from the previous year and Drake University’s up a bit.

Nationwide, the decline in interest has been so steep over an eight-year stretch that a few law schools across the nation are closing or merging. Among those expected to close are the California Southern Law School and the law school at Indiana Tech. In Minnesota, the Hamline and William Mitchell law schools have consolidated.

Opportunities remain for committed law students. But deans and new law graduates say it’s a bad idea to go to law school to please parents or find oneself while there. Jobs are too tight, and law school is too tough.

Chris Schmidt had struggled to find a full-time teaching job in social studies a few years ago. One of his pickup basketball friends happened to be Richard Moberly, currently the interim dean of law at NU.

One day Schmidt told Moberly he was thinking about going to law school. The hesitation in Moberly’s response and the advice he gave surprised Schmidt at the time.

“Just be sure it’s what you really want,” Schmidt quoted Moberly as saying that day several years ago.

Moberly said he knew Schmidt had wanted to teach, so he wondered what Schmidt aimed to get from law school.

“Law school is a commitment, of both time and money, and so out of prudence I wanted to hear why he wanted to go,” Moberly said. “I was thrilled that he had goals law school could help him achieve and ecstatic that he chose Nebraska.”

Steve Hogan, a 2016 graduate of the Creighton University School of Law, gives practical advice when talking to undergraduates who express curiosity about law school.

“If you’re going to go, you need to go with a purpose,” said Hogan, who now works in an Omaha law firm.

“You need to know that you actually want to go to law school,” he said. “It’s hard work. You need to be prepared to actually put that sacrifice in.”

Given the grind of law school, such advice would have been wise for decades. But the job market has tightened since the recession of 2008 through ‘10, making the advice more relevant.

Nick Rieschl, a communication studies major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, dabbled with the idea of going to law school. But Rieschl, who will graduate in May, is thinking instead about pursuing a master’s in business administration or public administration.

Law school is not in his plans now. “It’s a tough market to get a job and be super successful,” he said.

The number of people taking the Law School Admission Test dropped from 171,514 in 2009-10 to 101,689 in 2014-15, the lowest in more than 25 years.

The number of first-year law students dropped from 43,155 in 2012 to 37,071 in 2015, the American Bar Association reported.

Both the numbers of LSAT takers and first-year law students went up slightly last year.

But an opinion piece published in 2016 by the executive director of the National Association for Law Placement called the job market flat.

The writer, James Leipold, said “there can be little confidence that it (the job market) will return to what it was before the recession.”

The NU College of Law’s first-year class nevertheless received a big bump in enrollment last fall (from 104 in 2015 to 132), probably in part because the National Jurist publication named it the best value among the nation’s law schools in both 2015 and 2016.

The ranking considers tuition, average student loan debt, bar passage and job placement rates, and cost of living in an area.

“I think a lot of schools are just overpriced,” Moberly said. “So law school is still a good investment. You just have to do it wisely.”

Students, he said, have become “very aware of the cost of law school and are taking that into account.”

Tuition and fees this year for a Nebraska resident at the NU College of Law totaled $15,036, compared with $24,930 for residents at the University of Iowa College of Law. At Creighton and Drake, private universities where tuition and fees don’t differ for residents or nonresidents, those costs totaled $37,614 and $39,642 respectively.

Many students at most law schools receive financial aid.

Paul McGreal, Creighton’s law dean, said he tells prospective students that law school is not a place where one bides time while figuring out what to do.

McGreal, whose father was an attorney, said he read about the law for fun when he was a young man. “So it really was interesting and enjoyable,” he said.

Creighton and NU have law clinics staffed by third-year law students and overseen by law professors.

Jordan Reid, a third-year law student at NU, works at one of those clinics. Reid, of Omaha, said a couple of friends in undergraduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had considered law school and decided against it.

“I knew the market was bad,” she said.

That didn’t matter to her. “I always knew I wanted to go to law school,” she said.

Like Steve Hogan, Creighton law grad Allison Heimes of Lincoln obtained a dual degree while in law school, getting a master’s degree through the Government Organization and Leadership program.

Heimes, who graduated last May, is working as a law clerk in a Lincoln firm, but that job runs out in mid-April.

“I’ve probably applied for 15 different positions in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. I think there was one in Kansas City,” she said.

She said she loved Creighton, enjoyed law school and would do it all again. She said she was embarrassed to think she would be unemployed. The next day she reported that she had landed a job with an Omaha firm.

Collins Byrd, an assistant dean at the University of Iowa College of Law, said a person must be smart to get into law school. But once there, he must know how to “manage the grind,” Byrd said.

That means doing homework, preparing for class and staying on top of the workload, he said.

About 25 years ago, it was generally assumed that a law student would find work upon graduating. Now, Byrd said, a law school’s ability to increase job-placement odds is a higher priority than it was back then.

Kayla Hathcote of Aurora, Colorado, worried about the job market before she attended NU’s law school in 2013. She talked it over with her mother, who told her to go for it if that’s what she truly wanted.

“It really is a huge commitment of your time, your emotions,” Hathcote said. “It’s a lot of pressure.”

She now practices law in the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office in Lincoln.

Chris Schmidt, too, found work after law school.

“If you push against law school and hate it,” he said, “it’ll push back, and you’ll probably hate it over the course of three years.”

He lived with his parents in Lincoln and graduated with no debt from law school. Schmidt said he immersed himself in law school. And he liked it.

Schmidt has a one-year job clerking for a federal appellate judge in Omaha and a spot lined up with a Lincoln firm after that.