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EDITORIAL: Declining law school enrollment is no joke

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Q: What do you call an 11 percent drop in law school enrollment?

A: A good start.

It’s a spin on an old lawyer joke that can’t be leaving many law school administrators laughing.

A Dec. 17 report by the American Bar Association found that first-year enrollment at U.S. law schools fell to levels not seen since the 1970s. According to the ABA, the number of first-year law students fell 11 percent in 2013. By the association’s count 39,675 full- and part-time students enrolled in law school, nearly 5,000 fewer than in 2012.

That’s one future litigator shy of enrollment levels in 1977, when the ABA reported 39,676 first-year students. Enrollment in 1975 was 39,038. At that time there were 163 ABA-approved schools. There were 202 in 2013.

So there are more schools but fewer interested students.

The reason is simple: Students don’t want to graduate with a mountain of debt into a career that might not even be a career.

According to a report compiled by the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Challenges Facing New Lawyers Task Force, featured on our Court Gestures blog, a student graduating from law school now has about $95,000 in debt. Couple that with research, published by Moody’s Investors Service, showing that 12 percent of law school graduates nationwide were unemployed in July 2012, and it’s easy to see why enrollment is down.

Law schools across the country have tried to offset the declining tuition income by reducing faculty and staff members. It’s an unfortunate, but practical, consequence of the realities of the marketplace.

Adding insult to injury is that for graduates interested in prosecutorial work in Wisconsin, the need is great. But the money to back it up is not.

A study this year by the Wisconsin State Prosecutors Office found that 215 more prosecutors are needed to handle the number of cases county district attorneys’ offices across the state are asked to take on.

Both nationally and in Wisconsin, law school enrollment declined for a third straight year. More than 52,000 students entered U.S. law schools in their 2010 heyday. Today’s numbers mark a more than 27 percent drop.

At the University of Wisconsin Law School, 186 students are enrolled for 2013, down from 215 the year before. At Marquette University Law School, 209 students are enrolled for 2013, compared to 224 in 2012.

It remains to be seen whether those drops are course corrections or the early signs of a larger, problematic trend. But the result is less tuition money funneling into law schools, fewer tenured faculty and fewer qualified future lawyers.

And that is no joke.

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