Students entering law school this fall might have the best job prospects seen in the profession in a number of years.
Nelson Miller, associate dean of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, said sharply decreasing enrollment numbers over the past five years have created a need for attorneys.
“Law school enrollment levels nationally are at their lowest since the early 1970s, which means that now is a great time to enter law school — particularly given the demographics of an aging and retiring law profession,” Miller said. “We have seen an upturn in placement at the school and campus.”
Miller said the reason for this is hiring is up at law firms now that the recession is safely in the past and lower enrollments over the last five years mean fewer graduates are available to fill open positions.
Cooley, for instance, graduated 1,143 students in 2013 but only 871 in 2014.
“There is now a projection of a shortage of lawyers,” Miller said.
Figures released by the American Bar Association in April seem to support the idea that employment prospects are starting to improve for law graduates.
The ABA reported “a slight rise in the percentage of 2014 graduates obtaining entry-level jobs compared with 2013,” despite a slight decline in the total number of jobs.
Law school enrollment has fallen repeatedly since 2010.
The American Bar Association reported in December that total J.D. enrollment across the 204 accredited law schools in the country for fall 2014 was 119,775, which was a decrease of 6.9 percent from 2013 and a 17.5 percent decrease from a historic high enrollment in 2010.
First-year law school student enrollment fell 4.4 percent in 2014 from 2013. The 2014 numbers are down 27.7 percent from 2010’s historic high of first-year enrollment of 52,488 law students.
Miller said Cooley’s enrollment numbers for this fall will be similar to what the school saw last fall.
Cooley, which became affiliated with Western Michigan University last year, now has three Michigan campuses — in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Auburn Hills — and a campus in Tampa, Florida.
The school closed its Ann Arbor campus last January due to decreased enrollments and revenue reductions. The Ann Arbor campus did not accept new enrollees last fall.
Miller doesn’t expect enrollments to continue their downward trajectory for much longer.
“Reports do tend to confirm that law schools have reached the bottom of the national decline and may be heading up in enrollment,” he said.
“Nationally, leading indicators like the number of prospective law students taking the LSAT have been consistently up for the past several tests. Consistent with that trend, the WMU-Cooley Grand Rapids campus had more LSAT takers this past June than in recent years.”
Decreasing enrollments are a key factor in efforts by law schools across the country to improve their programs to attract more students and regain lost revenue.
Cooley’s affiliation with Western Michigan University is one way it’s providing students with increased opportunities. Miller said Cooley has already seen a lot of success thanks to the arrangement, and he expects more positive impacts to come.
“Both presidents of the schools are pleased with the affiliation,” he said.
He noted there have been 100 proposed collaborations between the two schools in the past year, some of which already have been implemented.
One of those proposed collaborations is for the development of a joint course, Ethics and Leadership, which will bring business and law students together. Miller said joint courses provide great opportunities for students.
Another likely growth area for the school is in its dual-degree offerings.
Many law schools have been increasing their dual-degree options in order to help with enrollment and meet the needs of law school graduates.
“Cooley is currently offering three dual-degree programs with Western,” Miller said. “The benefits include cost and time savings.”
He said the schools also offer an accelerated program that allows students to combine an undergraduate and law school degree, also saving time and money.
For students overburdened with education-related debt, dual-degree programs and an accelerated degree option are all the more important, and Miller expects to see those types of options grow in coming years.
Miller also said technology likely will allow for more opportunities for students to take classes from any of Cooley’s four campuses. He noted there are some accreditation requirements that limit what a law school can offer in terms of online options, however.