Friday, April 10, 2020
The Great Recession of 2008 (which we might mark from the collapse of Lehman in September of that year) was followed by increased law school enrollment for the first two years, and fairly normal law school hiring. The turning point came in 2011-12, with David Segal's New York Times series in 2011-12 which, notwithstanding, a lot of inaccuracies, made the debacle of the legal job market common knowledge, as well as Senators Coburn and Boxer pressuring the ABA to force law schools to report job statistics more accurately. That's when the collapse in law teaching jobs began in earnest because of the collapse in applicants to law school. Prior to the collapse, 150 to 160 new assistant professors of law were hired each year in the U.S.; at the lowest point, that number dropped to about 55. It has crept back now to the 80s or 90s now, at the same time that fewer candidates have entered the law teaching market (this year there were fewer than 400 candidates, compared to 700 or 800 in better times).
We are about to enter at least a Great Recession and maybe worse, due to the coronavirus pandemic (barring a medical breakthrough in the coming months). Recessions usually send people back to school, including law school, as we saw in 2008. Since LSAC has figured out how to keep testing, we'll find out soon how the 2020-21 application pool is shaping up. I expect it to continue the trend of recent years of increasing applications. If so, that means, despite the hiring freezes, or quasi-freezes, that many schools have announced (almost always with provisions for exceptions), that there will be hiring by law schools next academic year. (Even in a hiring freeze or slowdown, different units at a university will be treated differently depending on their finances. This will generally favor law schools.) If the general legal job market undergoes a significant retraction, as it did in the years after 2008, that will change the picture, but it won't do so right away.
So while 2020-21 won't be as robust a market for new law teachers as 2019-20 has been, my initial forecast was that it should still be a decent year (especially if the increase in applicants continues).
One additional data point has me a bit more concerned, however, about 2020-21, although it will affect different law schools very differently. There is likely to be a plunge in international students coming to U.S. law schools: some will not be able to travel because of restrictions imposed by their countries; some will not be able to travel because of US-imposed restrictions; and some will be unwilling to come to the U.S. for further education because of the obvious incompetence of the federal government in managing this crisis (many states have done much better, of course, but that's likely to be less well-known by foreign students). There are many law schools (including some elite ones) that are highly dependent on LLM tuition revenue from international students. Schools heavily dependent on international students will be in trouble and thus less likely to be hiring next year, even if their domestic JD applications hold up or increase.
In any case, the first indicators to watch are the LSAT testing volumes, which we should learn about in June. If they are strong, that will bode well for 2020-21. The second indicator to watch is travel restrictions, both those the U.S. imposes on other countries, and those other countries impose on travel to the U.S.