Faced with fewer employment opportunities for lawyers and a decline in applications, Albany Law School is getting smaller.
The school will admit fewer students this fall, and is in the process of developing a strategic plan for preparing for a leaner future. Penelope Andrews, dean and president of Albany Law School, said that the size of the student body, as well as the faculty, needs to be evaluated.
“We need to think about the right size of the law school,” Andrews said. “We need to think about how to be fiscally responsible and how to deal with less students and, therefore, less tuition.”
Last year, Albany Law School enrolled 202 first-year students. In 2011, the incoming class numbered 257, and in 2010 it numbered 245. Final numbers for this year’s enrollment are not yet available, but Andrews projected that about 180 new first-year students would be arriving on campus, based on the number of deposits that the school has received thus far.
With the exception of a handful of top-tier schools, law schools throughout the country are shrinking, forced to adapt to a decline in jobs for attorneys, particularly for recent law school graduates, as well as reduced demand for their services.
Although some of this is the result of the economic downturn, Andrews and others believe that the legal landscape has permanently shifted due to globalization and more sophisticated technology. Tasks that once took a day to complete, such as combing through legal documents, can now be performed quickly and easily using computer programs and the Internet. Work that might once have been performed by small, local firms can be outsourced. In addition, new vendors, many of them online, offer low-cost legal services that were once provided by well-paid attorneys.
“There are long-term trends,” said David M. Schraver, president of the New York State Bar Association. “It looks like this is not a temporary thing. There seem to be fewer higher-paying jobs, and higher debt [for students]. … Law schools, as well as bar associations, need to adapt.”
Attorney Laurie Shanks, a clinical professor of law at Albany Law School, agreed.
“Some of these changes are permanent,” she said. “Technology is not going to go away. … But we’re also never going to get rid of lawyers.”
“All law schools are facing challenges and dramatic change in the legal profession,” she continued. “I think independent law schools like Albany are well-positioned to meet these challenges. We are the one law school in the Capital Region.”
Some law schools are affiliated with major universities, but Albany Law School is not. Founded in 1851, it is the oldest independent law school in the U.S.
About 197 students graduated from Albany Law School this spring. In 2012, the school’s graduating class numbered 233.
According to the American Bar Association, 138 of those graduates, or 59.23 percent, obtained jobs that required passing the bar; 121 of those jobs were full time. Just under 10 percent of graduates were unemployed, but actively looking for a job, while just under 4 percent were unemployed but not looking for a job.
Statistics on how the class of 2013 is faring will be collected nine months after graduation; many of its members are currently preparing for the bar.
“Students have jobs in many places,” Andrews said. “We’ve kept close tabs on this class of graduates. We’re constantly trying to think of ways to energize their career searches. It’s an uphill battle.”
Right now, Albany Law School’s faculty and board of trustees are working to develop a strategic plan that will be finalized in late fall. Andrews said this plan will focus on size, and that she believes the school’s smallness is an asset.
“Our smallness means we can really think about ourselves as a community,” Andrews said. “We can engage in a more intimate manner. We can make decisions and see the impact of our decisions almost immediately.” She said she believes retooling will enable Albany Law School to thrive. “I don’t just want Albany Law School to be viable,” she said. “I want Albany to flourish.”
Another big asset is the school’s location, Andrews said.
“We’re located in the capital of the most important state in the union,” she said, noting that graduates have traditionally gone on to work in business, government and the nonprofit sector. However, those fields are not as robust as they once were: Firms and corporations are employing fewer attorneys, government has been shrinking, particularly at the federal level, and nonprofits have seen grant funding diminish.
However, Andrews sees several potential areas of job growth: health care, technology and entrepreneurship.
The school is developing a law and health care certification program that will be open to experienced attorneys, and the dean believes that the ongoing growth of tech companies such as Global Foundries will lead to a boom in lawyers who are versed in technology and the law.
“The Capital Region is a hot place right now,” Andrews said.
According to the American Bar Association, there were 46,364 law school graduates in the U.S. in 2012, an increase from 2011’s graduating class of 43,279. About 54.9 percent of the class of 2011 was employed in full-time jobs requiring passage of the bar, while 9.2 percent was unemployed and actively seeking work. About 56.2 percent of the class of 2012 was employed in full-time work requiring passage of the bar, while about 10.6 percent was unemployed and actively seeking work.
Andrews suggested that news reports about the struggles of law school graduates have contributed to an across-the-board decline in applications.
According to the Law School Admission Council, as of June 28 there were 57,772 applicants to law school, an 18 percent decline from 2012.
In 2012 the American Bar Association created a special task force to study the future of legal education; a report containing recommendations is due in the fall.
“Hopefully the New York Bar Association can get involved in that discussion,” Schraver said.
The September issue of the New York State Bar Association Journal will focus on legal education, as well the bar association’s annual meeting in January. “Part of what we’re trying to do is educate lawyers about these changes and issues so that everybody is thinking about them,” Schraver said. One question that needs to be addressed, he said, is “how do we become proactive in shaping the future, instead of just reacting?”
James Barnes, who co-chairs the Albany County Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Committee, said many recent law school grads are underemployed, or doing contract work that doesn’t come with benefits.
Barnes, who is 34 and works at Burke & Casserly, a small firm in Albany, said the poor market predates the recession.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a great legal market for young attorneys since I’ve been out of law school,” said Barnes, who graduated from the law school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2004. “The market wasn’t great then. It’s a significant problem.”
One factor, Barnes said, is greater reluctance among clients to hire less-experienced, first-year associates. “A lot of employers are looking for people who already have experience,” he said. “A lot of midsize to smaller firms are looking for someone with skills that are going to translate almost immediately to their practice.”
Barnes runs programs for Albany Law students in which he offers tips on how to break into the job market.
He said it’s important for students to find a niche, gain practical experience and make connections. “The book work is very important, but so is going to professional events and talking to people,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs out there that get filled that are never advertised.”
Andrews is entering her second year as president and dean of Albany Law School.
She got her first taste of Albany about a decade ago, during a stint as a visiting professor at the law school. Prior to assuming her current job, she served as the associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law.
The dean’s new initiatives include building closer relationships with local colleges, in the hope that they will promote Albany Law School to would-be law students, pairing every student with a mentor/adviser and holding more events where faculty and students can get to know each other.
“Our broad theme is students first,” she said.