BOSTON — ARE there too many lawyers in America? Dan Quayle says so. The shrinking job market for lawyers seems to be saying the same thing.
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.
But tuition loans can deter graduates from taking jobs in government, legal services, or public-interest organizations. To ease this impediment, Harvard, Yale, and some other law schools grant "back end" aid, forgiving all or part of a student's annual loan repayment for each year that the student is employed in a lower-paying legal job.
The curriculum that law students encounter today is a blend of traditional courses and teaching methods, and some significant innovations that have bloomed in the last two decades. Most first-year students still take the hallowed sequence of torts, property, contracts, constitutional law, criminal law, and trial procedure, with law professors grilling students in their most intimidating imitation of Professor Kingsfield of "The Paper Chase."
But the menu of elective courses for students in their second and third years has expanded in recent years. The growth reflects attempts by law schools to keep abreast of changes in the legal profession and also the more wide-ranging intellectual pursuits of legal scholars.
THE major developments:
* A proliferation of courses on relatively new legal subjects, including the environment, health care, pensions, intellectual property, alternative dispute resolution, and international business; because in many of these areas the law is defined more by complex statutes and regulations than the judicial opinions traditionally parsed by law students, teaching methods are also adjusting.
* Heavy student participation in clinical programs, in which law students, under the supervision of attorneys, represent actual clients in legal-services and public-defender programs.
* More interdisciplinary courses linking law with economics, sociology, psychology, literature, and feminist studies, often taught by professors with PhDs as well as law degrees.
The trend toward interdisciplinary courses has enriched law-school curricula, but it also has made some professors and administrators wary.
"Legal training must stay rooted in law," says Geoffrey Stone, dean of the University of Chicago Law School. "Some law schools seem to be too enamored of the scholarship of professors who aren't really interested in teaching lawyers."
But the hot topic when law deans get together isn't Critical Legal Studies; it's money. Despite full enrollments and rising tuitions, law schools are not exempt from the financial squeeze gripping higher education.
The public-university law schools, tied to state budgets, have been hit the hardest. At the University of Texas Law School, the percentage of the budget provided by the legislature has declined from 78 percent in 1984 to 41 percent today. The four public law schools in California have seen their budgets slashed along with the rest of the state-university system. Many private law schools also are feeling hard times. Stanford Law School, in Palo Alto, Calif., for instance, suffered a 10 percent cut in its budget this year.
If law-school administrators are united in their concerns about finances, they also join in dismissing the claim that there are too many lawyers in America - at least in the sense argued by Vice President Quayle, who contends that trial-happy lawyers are wrecking US competitiveness.
Says Dean Mark G. Yudof of the University of Texas Law School: "The Quayle theory carries no weight with any of the constituencies I deal with."
* Previous articles in the "Redefining Higher Education" series appeared Nov. 16 and 23.