By Tom Gantert and Jo Mathis
In the past few weeks, both The Chronicle of Higher Learning and The Wall Street Journal have written about Cooley Law School's decision not to trim enrollment in a down job market for attorneys. The Wall Street Journal stated there was a "glut of attorneys" nationwide.
While other law schools were making class sizes smaller, Cooley Law School said it would not. As of the fall of 2011, Cooley Law School has a total enrollment of about 4,000 spread among its Michigan campuses in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Auburn Hills, and Ann Arbor.
Associate Dean of Development and Alumni Relations James Robb said he disagrees with the national media's perspective of a down market for lawyers, especially in Michigan.
Robb said he believes the national media have a bias with a focus on "big law."
"A lot of the national reporters, they think the really, really big law firms in New York or Washington (D.C.) are the legal profession," Robb said.
For example, Dewey & Leboeuf LLP filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May in New York, according to Reuters. Dewey & Leboeuf employed as many as 102 attorneys in Washington D.C. as of 2011, according to The National Law Journal.
Big firms influence the media's perspective, Robb said, while they have little impact on what happens in Michigan, which doesn't have nearly as many mega firms.
According to the 2010 State Bar of Michigan survey, 70 percent of the private law firms in Michigan had six attorneys or fewer.
"I'm not sure why the Dewey & Leboeuf law firm is important to the five lawyers at a Jackson County law firm," Robb said. "I don't think the premise that it is a horrible job market, at least in Michigan, is really the case."
Instead, Robb sees a state with a lot of attorneys nearing retirement age.
And law degrees don't necessarily translate to a job as an attorney, he said.
"President Obama is a lawyer," Robb said. "Gov. (John) Engler (a Cooley Law School graduate) is a lawyer. There are all kinds of things you can do with a law degree. It's great training for business and public service."
Robb said some law schools voluntarily cut back on enrollment because they're concerned about their ranking in the U.S. News & World Report. If those law schools were to maintain the same number of students from a dwindling number of applicants, they would need to "dip lower into their admissions pool and negatively impact their ranking."
"In a sense, it is a matter of the market," Robb said. "Why restrict this? Why not let the market take care of it? If students perceive now is not a good time to go to law school, why would they apply? Why keep those who want to go from coming? To do that would not be consistent with Cooley's mission."
Robb said that nationwide, applications to law schools are down. But that didn't stop Cooley from expanding outside of Michigan. Cooley opened a campus in Tampa Bay last month with its first class of 104 students, about twice what was expected.
"The numbers indicate the Tampa Bay area was ready for a law school," said Jeff Martlew, associate dean of Cooley's Tampa Bay campus, in a press release.
But Cooley has been in the news regarding how it tracks how many of its attorneys land jobs after graduation. Four Cooley Law School graduates sued the school, claiming it misrepresented post-graduation employment statistics, according to MLive.
Cooley said it follows the standards set by the American Bar Association.
Some attorneys worry about where recent grads will find work.
"If the law schools should continue pumping out the same numbers as they have been, it seems like there is an awful lot coming out and I wonder how those people are going to find jobs," said Jackson attorney Steven Rick. "There is always a market someplace for new lawyers. The volume is what I'm wondering about."
Justin Heiman, who is finishing his second year at Cooley's Ann Arbor campus, said he feels fortunate that Cooley hires "truly extraordinary professors," that it emphasizes practical skills, and that it is closely connected to the local legal community. For example, Heiman has taken classes taught by Washtenaw County Trial Judges Archie Brown and Tim Connors.
"Students looking to enter any profession are concerned about jobs and the economy right now," he said. "I still get nervous thinking about student loans and getting my first job as a practicing attorney. On the other hand, many lawyers from the baby boomer generation are starting to retire, and I'm hopeful that new lawyers will help fill that gap."
Heiman said he has realistic expectations and believes getting a foot in the door is the most challenging thing for many graduates.
"Many successful lawyers have told me their performance in their first job was far more relevant than their transcripts as they progressed through their legal careers," he said. "One thing that helps with Cooley is that there is an extremely large alumni database. So I'm hoping that I can use that to my advantage in my search for a job after school."
He noted that Cooley intentionally offers students an opportunity to get a JD degree at an ABA-accredited law school -- an opportunity some students might not otherwise have had.
"And many Cooley alumni have had and continue to have impressive legal careers," he said. "Would it truly be fair to ask Cooley or any other law school to change its admissions policy with fluctuations in the job market?"
Peter Langley, the president of the Jackson County Bar Association, said law schools shouldn't cut back on applicants.
"I don't believe that it's the law schools role to limit the number of people that pursue a JD degree," Langley said in a message. "Unfortunately, a JD is the new MBA and schools are just reacting to students' demand. The problem that it creates is there are more new attorneys -- with hefty student loan debt -- than there are available positions. It is probably more important that potential law school students have access to the current status of the job market. Then it's up to the student to decide if they want to press forward. The study and practice of law is still a noble profession and underemployed smart people can still contribute a lot to our community."
Pat Conlin, president of the Washtenaw County Bar Association, agrees.
"I think the flooding of the market with lawyers is not a good thing if there are not jobs, but no other professional degree or graduate school limits enrollment based on the market as far as I know," he said. "Unlike a lot of other graduate degrees, a law degree is applicable in so many areas of business, that it is more versatile than most. What seems to have changed is the progression of 1L or 2L to summer internship to guaranteed job. Maybe schools need to do a better job of informing potential applicants that there are, in fact, no guarantees out there in the real world."
Published: Tue, Jul 3, 2012
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