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Are Florida's Law Schools in Trouble?

May 9, 2013 - 6:00pm

Thousands of students flock to the doors of Floridas 12 law schools each year, chasing the dreams of a respectable, well-paying job as an attorney. But the unfortunate reality for many of these young hopefuls is they may not leave law school with a job as a lawyer at all. Paired with with poor employment outcomes is the staggering cost to attend law school, leaving many students in a bind that can take years to get out of.

Kyle McEntee is a North Carolina lawyer who works to shed light on the current predicament facing the legal-education system. He is executive director of Law School Transparency, a website he co-founded in 2009 with former law school classmate Patrick Lynch. McEntee and Lynch began LST when they discovered a nationwide trend where law schools werent disclosing comprehensive employment outcomes of their students, thereby misleading potential university applicants.

LST, they contend, holds these schools accountable for providing up-to-date employment statistics for current and prospective students. It is a tool that tracks the types of jobs law-school graduates achieve, and compiles these jobs to reflect an accurate depiction of legal employment based on actual numbers of grads in full-time legal jobs.

LSTs statistics paint a grim picture for Floridas schools and their students.

Of the 12 law schools tracked in Florida, only four have more than 55 percent of graduates employed in full-time, long-term legal jobs.

The legal market isnt growing like in past years, which results in fierce competition in the job market, especially in Florida which is home to so many law schools. More than 3,000 students graduated from Floridas law schools in 2012 alone.

Those who dont come out with a legal job after graduation either have to stay in the job market longer or take another type of job to tide them over. And that could take them out of the legal profession entirely.

Added to the scarcity of jobs, the cost of attending any of Floridas law schools sits at a six-figure minimum across the board. The least expensive is the University of Florida, where state residents may still spend more than $125,000.

University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University are the costliest, capping at $232,000 and $220,000, respectively. Both schools are private.

The number of law school applications nationwide is down to the lowest its been in almost 30 years, and McEntee has a good idea why.

Increasingly, we are seeing more price sensitivity among high schoolers and not only prospective law school students," he tells Sunshine State News. "On top of that, there's been a ton of media coverage about the weakness of the legal market. With that information, prospective students are shying away from spending all that money, hoping to see prices drop and then go, or waiting a few years and saving up some money [to attend].

In order to attend these programs, many students take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. Many are then forced to carry a heavy load of student debt as they get older, which can make spending on necessities difficult.

If you think of who it is that has all the student debt, these are people that we want buying houses, paying Social Security, just spending money generally. Theyve got a lot less to spend because of their student debt, McEntee said. Im not optimistic about what its going to do to the economy.

Last week, officials at the Federal Reserve also said student debt may pose a significant risk to economic growth in the United States.

If universities want to get serious about providing the best outcomes for their students, McEntee says theyll need to change their structure. Floridas schools will need to bring down costs to appeal to new students. But thats difficult to do, because the upkeep of law schools is expensive. Along with professors salaries, running a law school can cost millions each year.

McEntee still sees a silver lining. I think legal education is going to be better off. But sooner rather than later.

Allison Nielsen writes special to Sunshine State News.

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