Meeting the legal industry where it’s going

At an alumni-faculty retreat held April 5 at the Levin College of Law, Dean Robert Jerry discussed the challenges facing the legal profession, their implications for legal education, and how the college is facing them. In this Q-and-A, Jerry addresses some of the issues he discussed at the retreat. The media consistently reports that it has become more difficult for law school graduates to get jobs.

Dean Robert Jerry

Dean Robert Jerry

Is this accurate?

Yes. Although this generalization hides important variations that exist across practice sectors, regions and law schools, the general proposition is correct. The demand for licensed lawyers nationally now falls below the number of graduates the nation’s law schools are producing. The U.S.

Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that through 2020 there will be approximately 23,000 new lawyer jobs created annually. This spring, the nation’s 201 accredited law schools graduated about 46,000 students. Even granting that not all of these graduates intend to pursue a practice career, there is no escaping the math.

Neither the legal profession nor legal education is immune from market forces and, not surprisingly, the numbers are already beginning to change. You’ll recall that we reduced the size of our J.D. program by 25 percent in 2009; with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that we did the right thing. In fact, we were one of legal education’s leaders in doing this. In 2012, 90 percent of the law schools for which data were available in the fall — about 140 of them — admitted fewer students than in 2010. Most estimates are that there will be 6,000 to 8,000 fewer entering law students in 2013, but the number of law graduates in 2016 will still exceed the new jobs being generated, even if we assume a growing economy.

Looking beyond 2020, the exit of the boomer generation from the workforce will be one of the biggest changes in employment markets in our country’s history. By some estimates, about 400,000 of the nation’s 1.1 million lawyers are boomers; so a vast array of new opportunities will come into existence as the boomer generation leaves the scene. But in the meantime, new law graduates will continue to face a challenging legal employment market.

Why are legal jobs so hard to come by?

Two things are obvious. The number of law graduates has steadily increased during the last two decades. Eighteen new law schools have been accredited since 2000, and some of these are very large. As the supply of lawyers has gone up, the demand for legal services has gone down, just like with most other goods and services in the national and global economies.

But it’s important to understand that some of the causes were in motion well before, and have no connection to, the recession. Increased technological efficiencies have affected almost every aspect of law practice, ranging from research to document assembly to communication. New business processes adopted in almost all practice settings create efficiencies in the delivery of services. Globalization has brought profound changes, ranging from increased competition from foreign law firms to the enabling of outsourcing some functions that can be performed more cheaply overseas. We are also witnessing growth in “nonlawyer” services, which substitute for some of the traditional work of lawyers. None of these things eliminate the need for lawyers in our society, but added together they reduce the number of lawyers needed to do the same amount of work, and this has significantly contributed to the mismatch between supply and demand.

How are these changes affecting UF Law?

The graduating class of 2000 was almost 95 percent employed six months after graduation, but the 2012 graduating class was about 80 percent employed nine months after graduation. For the 2012 graduating class, 59 percent were employed in jobs for which bar passage is required, and I am certain that this percentage, had it been calculated in 2000, would have been considerably higher.

Overall, these trends are cause for both concern and action on our part, but it is worth noting that there are bright spots inside the data. For example, recently released ABA placement data ranks UF Law 26th among the nation’s 200-plus law schools in the number of graduates entering federal judicial clerkships. This is an important comparison for which, I would contend, larger school size doesn’t create any particular advantage. In placement in jobs with law firms, UF Law does very well. We ranked 17th in the number of graduates placed in law firms of size 26-50, 14th in the number of graduates placed in law firms of size 100-251, and a remarkable third in the nation in law firms of size 51-100. These law firm sizes are predominant in Florida, and we expect to do well relative to other law schools in this market. On the other hand, we do very poorly in the rankings for the number of our graduates who go into solo practice. But this doesn’t concern me, because I don’t think going into solo practice right out of law school is a good idea, and we don’t recommend it to our students. We have a relatively large number of graduates enrolling in LL.M. programs — especially our nationally renowned tax LL.M. program — and those students get counted as unemployed in the national statistics most frequently cited in the media.

We do see areas in the placement data where we want to do better, and we are already working on new strategies to improve our results. I won’t be satisfied until 100 percent of our students are placed in their first-choice jobs. But I am not troubled if another law school posts a higher placement percentage because of a larger number of graduates going into solo practice or a smaller number going into graduate programs.

Over the longer run, how should UF Law respond to these changing conditions?

We have already made significant curricular reforms in the first year curriculum, and we continue with our planning for changes in the second year and especially the third year. I believe it’s important to find ways to improve how our J.D. program is more closely integrated with practice. For two decades, we’ve been out front on this with a required legal drafting course for upper-class students, and we’ve made great improvements in recent years with our externship program, which now places about 300 law students annually in a judicial externship or a practice setting experience.

But I believe there is more we can do with other types of experiential learning, and there are some ideas for innovation in the externship program we should explore. On the placement side, we have some promising ideas on bridge programs that connect students directly to jobs while still in law school. Our Center for Career Development is launching a number of innovative programs, and I encourage any alumni — or nonalumni — to contact us so we can explain the different ways we can connect you with a highly motivated and capable UF Law student or graduate.

Ice hockey is not a sport I played or that I understand particularly well, but I’ve become fond of a quote attributed to Wayne Gretzky, probably the greatest hockey player of all time: Don’t skate to where the puck has been, or to where it is; skate to where the puck is going.

I’m sure that’s good advice for hockey, but I think it’s also good advice for lots of things, and it’s certainly good advice for legal education. If we don’t follow that advice, we’ll do an excellent job of preparing our students to practice in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. I believe we’re on the right path to making responsible, appropriate changes at UF Law to prepare our students for this rapidly changing world. Let me once again thank our wonderful alumni for all their help and support as our college continues on this challenging journey.