Holding Court

University of Memphis law school enrollment holds steady as nation’s declines


As has been reported in national newspapers and business magazines for months, the fall’s law school enrollment nationally is down from this time last year and beyond.

Andrew McClurg teaches torts to first-year law students at The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, where enrollment is holding steady compared to last year.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The American Bar Association’s ABA Journal reported in August that “Law school applications for the fall of 2013 have dropped 17.9 percent and applicants are down 12.3 percent.”

But the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law enrollment is holding steady with 112 first-year students, the same number as last fall. Prior to 2008 and its economic slump, however, that number might have been as high as 150 students.

“I think that’s probably typical across the country, you look in terms of enrollment being down 20 to 30 percent from peak times is fairly standard,” said Peter Letsou, dean of the law school. “We’re moving roughly with national trends again this year. I think we did a little better enrollment than most did, but it’s very much a national tidal wave that’s hitting all of us.”

Law school enrollment typically shoots up in bad economic times. Prospective students often react to a poor job market by investing in education to acquire skills and become more marketable for the cycle’s eventual upward turn.

“We had a significant recession in the very early ’90s, and during that period law school applications shot up on the order of 50 or 60 percent,” Letsou said.

The recession of five years ago, though, was the first such downturn to affect the legal profession. While there were slight increases in applications for the first year or two, eventually the profession contracted and law firms began layoffs and cutting back significantly on the hiring of lawyers.

“I think it took a little time, but prospective students finally realized that that was happening, that law wasn’t immune to this recession, that law jobs were getting harder to find, and then what we started to see is this drop-off in applications that we’re still experiencing,” Letsou said.

He sees signs of strengthening in the market but thinks this trend will continue for at least a few more years. In the meantime, there is a smaller pool of applicants and those applicants are becoming savvier when it comes to choosing a school. They’re researching more, looking at cost and trying to find the greatest value for their tuition dollar.

The University of Memphis law school tuition is currently $17,000 per year in-state and $37,000 out of state. The largest decline this year is in out-of-state applicants, which typically account for 15 percent. Of the remaining percentage, half are from outside of Shelby County. And this is at a time when there are six law schools in Tennessee, up from four in 2010, points out Sue Ann McClellan, assistant dean for admissions, recruitment and scholarships for Memphis.

“The interesting factor to add to this is that there are many, many more law schools than there were (nationally), and applications to law school are at a 30-year low,” McClellan said. “But 30 years ago there weren’t 200-plus law schools, either.”

Chris Tutor is from Memphis yet cast his net wide after graduating from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Ky. He did his due diligence, looking at cost, rankings, bar passage and employment rates for law schools, and was accepted by Columbia and Vanderbilt but chose Memphis.

“I visited a lot of law schools,” Tutor said, “and Memphis has the most beautiful law school building and facility, I think, in America.”

The third-year law student and president of the Student Bar Association considered the value for his money – the school’s proximity to the courts and the majority of the city’s law firms, the high bar passage rate and a 90-percent employment rate, which is on par with the national average. The low tuition and scholarship money offered, as well, meant that he will be leaving school virtually debt free.

“In a way, the move to Downtown and to the new building was even more important than people may have thought at the time we undertook the move,” Letsou said. “The things we can do here are of more value in this climate than they were previously.”

Despite the narrow applicant field and shallow pool for employers, Letsou still sees a juris doctorate as a sound investment and foundation for a future career.

“Even in the tough times that we’re in, I think it would be hard to find an educational alternative that had a return as good as the return that you’re still able to get,” he said.

Though optimism for return on investment in a law degree remains high, McClellan still has her work cut out for her when it comes to the sale, using every means possible, from email to social networking to stay in contact with potential applicants.

“We work actively from offer to the time they show up at orientation,” she said. Attending national forums organized by the Law School Admissions Council in major cities around the country, she finds that the competitive nature among recruiters has been heightened by the decrease in the number of applicants.

Though some have characterized low enrollment as a crisis, Letsou and his team don’t find themselves in panic mode as yet. There have been no staff layoffs and classes haven’t been cut.

“In terms of cost structure, we’re pretty good,” he said. “We’re lean and we’ve been able to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”