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Schools Still Hatch Flock of Legal Eagles

By James H. AndrewsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 1992


ARE there too many lawyers in America? Dan Quayle says so. The shrinking job market for lawyers seems to be saying the same thing.

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But tell it to the 129,580 students who were enrolled in United States law schools in the academic year that ended last spring. The number of students in the 176 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) was the highest in the nation's history, and law-school enrollment figures have climbed steadily since 1984 - during a period when the legal profession has been undergoing retrenchment.

Not that law students are oblivious to reports about attorney layoffs. Law-school administrators around the country say that students are concerned about job prospects.

"Most of our graduates are getting jobs, but they have fewer offers to choose from than a few years ago," says Julian Eule, associate law-school dean at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Sure they're worried."

Belt tightening in the legal profession is reflected in the market for newly minted lawyers: Just 85.9 percent of the law-school Class of 1991 was employed six months after graduation, down from 90.4 percent for the Class of '90 after six months, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) in Washington, D.C. Throughout most of the 1980s, the employment rate for new graduates ranged from 89 percent to 92 percent.

"I tell students that they can't help when they were born," says Francis Beytagh, dean of the Ohio State University College of Law. "If it's their dream to be a lawyer, they should go for it. Besides, the downturn in the legal market is tied to the downturn in the economy and probably is cyclical."

The fact is, a lot of young, and not so young, Americans want to put "Esquire" after their names - or at least want to have a law degree, which enjoys a reputation as a versatile career credential.

The Law School Admission Council in Newtown, Pa., reports that the number of applicants for this year's entering law-school class declined 1.6 percent, to 92,500 from a record 94,000 in 1991. But that was still more than twice the 44,000 first-year slots in ABA-approved law schools.

After falling off in the late '70s and early '80s, law-school applications surged beginning in 1984 (see chart). The rise is attributable to numerous factors, says Jim Vaselek of the Law School Admission Council, including a perception by many students that they required professional education to succeed in a more complex economy.

"But the factors also include such things as increased interest in law arising from the Bork hearings [Senate hearings in 1987 on President Reagan's unsuccessful nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court] and the popularity of TV shows like `L.A. Law,' " Mr. Vaselek says.

He also notes that law applications by women and minority students swelled in the '80s.

Vaselek suspects that some would-be law students are shying away because of the straitened job market for lawyers. But he refers wryly to a survey that found that "75 percent of law-school applicants expect to be in the top 20 percent of their class."

Perhaps it's this confidence that allows many law students to shoulder large debt burdens. With annual tuition at private law schools ranging from $10,000 to more than $17,000, and with few grants available for legal studies, many graduates begin their new careers deep in the hole. Yet law-school loans are widely regarded as a lucrative investment.

"If we came across a stock that promised the same long-term yield as a law degree from a good school, most of us would snap it up," says Robert C. Clark, dean of Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.