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Economy affects applications, job outlook

After one of the worst recessions in American history, new law school graduates are entering a legal landscape quite different from the one they started in three years earlier.

Law firms have eliminated about 15,000 jobs since 2008, and the American Bar Association has recently addressed concerns that law schools have often used inflated figures to report graduates’ rate of employment.

Both are likely contributing to the 11.5 percent drop in law school applications for entry in fall 2011, according to the Law School Admission Council.

The recession, after years of what some considered the strongest market for lawyers in recent memory, drastically hurt the hiring power of the legal industry, said Elizabeth Workman, assistant dean at Vanderbilt School of Law. In 2008, 45 percent of potential employers who had regularly recruited at Vanderbilt put the quest for new lawyers on hold, she said.

“There’s no question the recession has affected legal hiring,” Workman said. “Students expected to be hired by large firms [were] deferred, sometimes for a year, and all firms, large and small, were sizing down considerably.”

Workman is confident, however, that the job market has turned the corner.

“Large firms are starting to look for first-year attorneys again,” she said.

In fact, Vanderbilt’s law school had the largest number of applicants in its history—4,885—for the class of 2013 that entered a year ago. Only 195, our about 3.9 percent of applicants, were admitted.

Despite the recent employment slowdown, Belmont College of Law Dean Jeff Kinsler said he, too, is confident that law schools will be able to move forward and jobs will on the horizon for new graduates. Belmont’s law school will have a capacity of about 350 students. Vanderbilt keeps its law school student population at 600-650.

Kinsler said there is always going to be a demand for educated professionals, even though there are rough patches in the economy. “Colleges and universities have survived much worse,” he said. “We survived the Great Depression.”

While the law industry is trying to recover from the economic downturn, law schools are also dealing with their own set of issues with the employment numbers they advertise.

For years, law schools have provided employment data that was optimistic and perhaps even inaccurate. Under the current guidelines, schools can claim their students are “employed after graduation” if they have any job—lawyer, paralegal, —after they walk across the stage with diploma in hand. At this point, schools are also not required to report these numbers, leaving fact-gathering groups to scramble for likely less accurate data.

While many schools release accurate data, a number of schools have been known to “fudge their numbers,” Workman said, noting that Vanderbilt’s reporting is not under fire.

“You have to be very careful,” she said of prospective students looking at any professional schools. “You have to take all the results in context.”

“U.S. News and World Report” is threatening to penalize schools that do not report employment numbers for its annual, closely-watched rankings for “best law schools.” The American Bar Association and the National Association of Legal Professionals, the organizations primarily responsible for reporting these numbers, are working on a reformed and more accurate system.

Having more accurate figures would definitely be an improvement over the status quo, Kinsler said.

“The NALP data was not worth the paper it was written on,” he said. “They asked vague questions (about employment),” he said.

The data, Kinsler said, has never been completely accurate for projections, considering students make decisions about entering law school by using information from years earlier.

Using those numbers to project future employment is unrealistic, Kinsler said.

“No one could do that. No one could make projections.”

Still, projections get some attention. Earlier this year, articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal fueled the debate about the value of law school in today’s economy.

WSJ cited a 2009 report from the ABA noting that the average law student could expect to graduate with more than $100,000 in school debt, a tough proposition for those facing an especially uncertain job market and who might already have undergraduate debt.

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