Higher Education Spotlight: Law Schools in Crisis

May 08, 2014

Law schools across the country are facing a serious crisis. The changing landscape of legal education has led to recruitment challenges that are threatening the longevity and success of programs at many schools.

There are multiple drivers fueling the crisis. While addressing some of these issues is a more complex challenge than addressing others, it’s vital for schools to map out digital marketing strategies that tackle them head-on if they want to position themselves for survival. Some of the major issues law schools must confront in their digital planning include:

  • A Glut of Law School Graduates - More schools are graduating more law students. According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2013 a record number of diplomas were awarded to 46,776 law school graduates. This number was about 400 students larger than the previous class. This flood of graduates leads to increased competition in the job market and higher unemployment. In fact, the number of 2013 graduates unemployed or seeking employment grew from the previous year’s number.
  • Fewer Law School Applicants -While the number of graduates in 2013 was an all-time high, the number of applicants declined. “As of mid-January, 27,891 people had applied for seats in American Bar Association-accredited law schools,” reported the National Law Journal. “That represented a 20% decline since last year (and 2012 was hardly a banner year itself, as the number of applicants fell by nearly 14%). If the trend holds through the final months of the admission cycle, law schools would see a 38% crash since their peak in 2010.”
  • More Law Schools Are Opening -The Wall Street Journal reported that over the past 12 years, the number of law schools has increased by about 10%, from 180 to 201 schools. This increased competition has spread thin the number of enrolled students per school.
  • Decrease In Law Grad Employability - The Great Recession affected the law industry, and in turn law school graduates, hard. The “high-paying law-firm jobs many of those students had hoped to land are in short supply, and some top firms have scaled back their hiring of entry-level lawyers by as much as half since the financial crisis started in 2008,” reported The Wall Street Journal.
  • Distrust of Law School Employment Statistics -The contracting job market and record number of graduates created the perfect storm for high unemployment. So, it’s hardly a surprise that law school graduates have called into question the employment statistics advertised by law schools. According to The Wall Street Journal, “In recent months, law school graduates have filed more than a dozen lawsuits around the country accusing law schools of misleading prospective students by advertising that a high percentage of their graduates were employed, without specifying whether the jobs required a law degree. The schools have moved – successfully, in at least one case – to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that they strictly followed American Bar Association rules and maintained accurate job-placement data.”
  • Innovation and Globalization Killing Lawyer Jobs -While some analysts would attribute the decreased number of jobs to the financial crisis, Time Magazine uncovered another fate for these jobs. “The more pessimistic view is that the market will never recover: that as a result of globalization, it has become easier for law firms and companies to outsource legal assignments to places like India, where foreign lawyers will work for a fraction of what an American lawyer would earn. There are also new technologies that are putting lawyers out of work – including software that can do tedious document-review projects that used to require an actual human.”

So the question remains, “Is there anything law schools can to do ensure their longevity in the face of these challenges?” The good news is there are a number of effective strategies that can lead to positive results. Some law schools have responded to the changing employment landscape with new ideas focused around reducing total costs for students and improving their marketability. Tactics include:

  • Reduced class size – A study conducted by Kaplan and reported by The Wall Street Journal shows that 51% of schools have cut class sizes.
  • Emphasizing employment – According to the same study, 68% of law schools report changing their curriculum to make their graduates more “practice ready.”
  • Increased practical training – From more clinical programs to non-profit and public interest fellowships to special incubators for solo practitioners, law schools are developing, or at least emphasizing, practical training opportunities during and immediately following law school.

These changes are a great start, but there is more to be done. Understanding how to overcome some the challenges facing law schools starts with identifying and understanding the motivations of prospective law students.

If you ask a prospective law student the top driver in their selection of a law school, the response is usually school rank. In general, law students want to go to the best law school to which they can be admitted. And, with transparent rankings, the best is easy to determine.

However, our research has shown that while ranking is a good initial proxy for quality in choosing which schools to apply, law students are motived by a number of other factors when it comes to selecting a school. In fact, in once study, money, reputation, and cultural fit outweighed rankings in the final decision.

  • Finances – The decision to matriculate to a law school is highly driven by the financial commitment. Prospects frequently discussed and compared the amount of financial aid being offered and calculated the return on investment (ROI) of attending a law school. Most students assumed they would take a loan to complete and pay for their education.
  • Faculty and Staff – After acceptance, prospects dig deep to find out faculty information and credentials. They are particularly interested n the law school that faculty attended and the courses each faculty teach.
  • Cultural Fit – Except for a few top institutions, the cultural fit of the institution plays a strong role in the decision. In qualitative studies, students express emotional selection criteria for selecting a school: friendliness of students, faculty availability, and diversity of campus/opinions.
  • Recommendations – Recommendations by friends, family, and especially a current manager or prospective employer play a large role in the decision making process and can sway an accepted student to matriculate.
  • Programs of Study – A unique offer can also trump other factors. It is important for prospective students to understand a school’s unique offerings and programs of study.

Based on our research with law school students, the internet was the primary way to research and discover law schools. Prospects are using:

  • Third-party site such as: LSAC, EJW, U.S. News & World Report, and Princeton Review
  • Screening or ranking site such as “lawschool100”
  • Google or other general search engines
  • Online student reviews – these play a larger role in decision making
    In one survey, we found print view books to be under-utilized, and again, the internet to be the primary means of research.

By leveraging the research data to understand what prospective students are looking for in a law school, institutions can establish digital strategies that will help drive their outreach goals. Focus should be around:

  • Establishing a Unique Brand – The brand proposition should establish the credibility, leadership positions, and excellence of the institution. Brand attributes and brand pillars will provide the basis for ongoing storytelling.
  • Show Degree Outcomes With Compelling Content – Clearly articulate the program purpose, values and outcomes, differentiators, course of study, and faculty credentials. Support and validate this information using proof points such as third-party rankings, outcome numbers, alumni testimonials, awards, partnerships, and history.
  • Clear Presentation of Degree/Program Options – In order to make an informed choice, prospective students need to understand offerings during their research and decision making cycle.
  • Use Outbound Marketing That Makes Prospects Take Action – Implement an outbound marketing campaign that raises awareness, nurtures leads, and leverages existing contacts. Include strong calls to action in email, direct mail, and online remarketing advertising that drive users to the website, a landing page, or phone for additional information that leads to conversion.
  • Use Inbound Marketing That Targets Prospective Student – With the advanced demographic filtering data offered by paid advertising platforms, law schools can reach prospective students who meet their target criteria. Using search engine advertising like Google AdWords and Bing Ads, along with social advertising like Facebook and LinkedIn, connecting with prospects is easier than ever.

Law schools are facing complex challenges unlike anything they have seen before, and while some of these barriers to long-term success are beyond their control, others can be mitigated with savvy use of existing assets and tools. Institutions that take control of their digital presence to drive brand awareness, lead generation, and conversion will stay ahead of the game while those who do not will struggle just to keep up.

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