Cornell Students Delay Legal Careers

February 20, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Justin Rouillier

The number of Cornell undergraduates enrolling in law school immediately after graduation has decreased 44 percent over the last five years, according to data released by the University’s Career Services Office.

In 2007, 5.9 percent of the University’s graduating class went to law school in the fall after graduation, while only 3.3 percent of the Class of 2011 attended law school the subsequent year, according to Jane Levy, senior associate director of Cornell Career Services.
Within the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the decline has been even steeper, according to Harry Katz, dean of ILR. Twenty-six percent of the ILR Class of 2007 enrolled in law school for the academic year following graduation, compared to only 12 percent of the class of 2011 –– an almost 54-percent decrease.
Katz noted, however, that only students who enroll in law school for the semester after they graduate are included in the data.
“Law schools increasingly encourage students to work before they go on to law school,” Katz said. “The dean of the law school, Stewart Schwab, tells me that 50 percent of the students that the Cornell Law School admits have three or more years of work experience. That seems to be true at many others schools.”
One student who felt pressure to defer law school was Emily Cusick ’12, an ILR student and the president of Kappa Alpha Pi, a pre-law fraternity at Cornell.
“Some of the pre-law students in my fraternity have just decided to do banking for the next couple years,” Cusick said. “They get these lucrative banking offers, and they just can’t say no. A year off would probably deter me from law. There would be no impetus to go to law school, so I’m going to law school next year just to make sure that at the end of the day I become a lawyer.”

Katz cited the economic downturn as another factor causing the trend.

“The cost of law school has gone up and the number of job opportunities has gone down,” he said. “People may be discouraged to hear of the more limited hiring going on in major law firms after the 2008 financial crisis.”

According to Richard Geiger, associate dean of Cornell Law School, the number of applications to U.S. law schools has generally declined over the last five years. Geiger said that he expects that this pattern will continue next year and that Cornell will follow the national trend.
“[Five years ago], national application numbers [were] about 85,000 applicants a year — that’s a rough number — and I’m guessing that the nationwide application number will be in the low 70,000s for this year,” Geiger said.  “I would be surprised if we didn’t track with the national numbers.”
According to Geiger, the economy tends to negatively affect trends in law school applications.
“I have been doing this for a long time, and I have seen law schools’ application numbers go up and down,” he said. “They have reacted in broad ways to the general economy.”
However, Geiger said he believes law schools may face a slower recovery this time than after previous declines.
“It’s been a little different from all the other ups and downs of previous years,” he said. “I think this time, because of the bad press that has been out there about law schools misreporting numbers, the numbers won’t recover as fast or completely.”
Fifteen law schools have been sued recently for allegedly misrepresenting employment data to encourage applications, according to the National Jurist, a law magazine.
Katz said he agreed with Geiger that the national media attention may hinder law schools’ efforts to regrow application numbers. However, he said that the decline in hiring by “white shoe” law firms — firms more than a century old  which represent Fortune 500 companies — have become known to many undergraduates considering a career in law.
“It has been in newspapers,” Katz said. “High end law firms were either rescinding offers or delaying the start of newly hired associates. There has been a sharp drop in hiring at white shoe law firms.”
Some students, however, remained undaunted by portrayals of the legal job market.
“I would read these horror stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post about how law firms were no longer guaranteeing jobs,” Cusick said. “But I always knew I was going to go to one of the top 14 law schools, where employment statistics have remained pretty strong. Most of the bad numbers are coming from the worse-ranked schools.”
Hallie Mitnick ’12, who plans to attend law school in the fall, said she does not know anyone who has been deterred from pursuing law because of hiring freezes.
“In fact, I think more people are looking at graduate and professional school because the economy is so bad,” she said. “Nobody is hiring, so some people might want to get another degree and then see how it is in three or more years.”
Katz said that he is confident that the legal industry will recover, but that he is not sure when.
“I expect that white shoe law firms will announce that they are hiring again sooner or later,” he said.
In an average class size of 190 students at the law school, it is not unusual for about 20 to have attended Cornell for their undergraduate education, according to Geiger.
“The entering class size in terms of Cornellians has been about the same over the past five years,” he said.
Mitnick said she just hopes firms will start hiring again by the time she graduates from law school.
“My hope is that in three years hiring will have picked up,” she said. “But as of right now, no matter what career you head into, you are going to find the same hiring problem.”

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