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Law school enrollment decline hits midstate schools

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Penn State Dickinson School of Law has seen a slight enrollment drop since 2010. File photo
Penn State Dickinson School of Law has seen a slight enrollment drop since 2010. File photo

Midstate law schools haven't escaped the national trend of shrinking enrollment and faculty.

Widener Law's Harrisburg campus has shed faculty in the last year to cope with fewer students and a more-competitive admissions process, and Penn State Dickinson School of Law, which includes the Carlisle campus, has also seen a slight enrollment drop since 2010.

It's the same direction law schools across the country are heading as fewer students apply to law school and take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). That's at least partly a reaction to the shrinking job market for lawyers, said Elizabeth Simcox, executive director of the Dauphin County Bar Association.

"In the past, if you went to a graduate school or a professional school, there was a pretty good chance you were going to get a job. That's not quite the case anymore," she said, noting national job placement out of law school within six months is about 50 percent. "When there are other professions crying for workers, I think there are a lot of people (who consider law school) that are looking more broadly at what their education path will look like."

Widener Law's Harrisburg campus shrank its faculty to 23 from 28 after the 2013 spring semester, with those five members taking a voluntary "transition package," or a buyout, according to Dan Hanson, the school's director of public relations.

The package was offered to every member of the school's faculty. The school did not lay off any faculty members and has no plans to further reduce staff, Hanson said.

The reduction came as the school has lost about a quarter of its enrollment between fall 2010 and February of this year, according to statistics provided by the school.

At Penn State University Dickinson School of Law, 2012-13 admissions were down about 6.3 percent from 2009-10, according to figures from the American Bar Association, though the school's enrollment figures have fluctuated over that time between loss and gain. The school includes campuses in Carlisle and University Park.

Faculty has increased about 9 percent, and school officials said no tenured faculty member has been laid off.

School officials said applications for the 2013-14 school year are down, but the school isn't lowering its standards.

"The pool of individuals with our targeted credentials is down as well," said Crystal Stryker, marketing and communications manager at the school.

Across the country, there are fewer people taking the LSAT, and fewer people applying to law school. After a record-high 171,514 tests were administered for the 2009-10 school year, only 112,515 tests were given for 2012-13, according to the Law School Admission Council, based outside Philadelphia.

The 34 percent drop was a stark contrast to a growth period in which testing shot up 65 percent between the 1997-98 and 2009-10 school years.

Law school applications also are down, according to the council. By the end of June, for 2013-14 law school admittance there were about 380,000 applications submitted nationwide (down 18.3 percent from 2012) by almost 58,000 hopeful students (down 12.9 percent).

Hanson said about 20 new law schools have been accredited since 2000 — bringing the number of ABA-accredited law schools in the country to 202 — making greater competition for fewer students.

"I think law school enrollment is cyclical," Hanson said. "We're right where a lot of law schools are right now."

Hanson said that, other than the faculty reduction, the school has responded to the enrollment drop by adding more online courses and focusing on areas of growth, such as corporate law compliance and health care law.

"We wanted to take a look at where the opportunities are in terms of legal education and adapt," he said. "Luckily, we've found some programs that have been popular."

Simcox said the scarcity of law school students hasn't affected the local law community yet but could down the road. The number of lawyers in Pennsylvania has risen almost 10 percent since 2006 to a 2013 total of nearly 50,000, according to ABA statistics.

The loss of potential students is partially indicative of the economic downturn, she said, as many law firms have cut back on hiring since their clients have cut back on legal budgets. One Pittsburgh firm that formerly hired 40 interns per summer, she said, hired about five this year.

That's not to discourage potential law students from pursuing their dreams, Simcox said; it's just the reality of how students go about choosing a profession with the daunting job market numbers facing them.

"When you consider the undergraduate debt, the law school debt, and then not being able to find a job to support that level of debt, it's a tough choice," she said. "I would never, ever discourage someone from going into the law. I've been able to do wonderful things with my law degree. I just know it's a tough choice right now."


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