The way the dean of the UNH School of Law John Broderick describes it, the precipitous drop in enrollment came on fast and furious.
“I don’t think anyone saw it coming. I don’t think anyone quite knows whether it’s over.”
According to the American Bar Association, enrollment at law schools across the country dropped by 11 percent last year, and is down by 23 percent since 2010.
And the University of New Hampshire School of Law hasn’t been immune.
Last year, the school saw half the applications it did two years prior and now admissions are at the lowest point in a decade.
Officials at the school say they’re exploring options to keep law education moving forward – including expanding into online learning.
“Whether you think it’s a good idea or you don’t, it’s reality,” Broderick says. “Even I live on an iPad. So the world is moving on. And American legal education and American higher education needs to the accept that and adapt.”
Later this year, the school will launch an International Criminal Law and Justice online program.
And that’s just a start.
“We will have within a year’s time, an online master’s degree in intellectual property. And that can be totally where you are. Or it can be where you are and half of it will be here in residence.”
Law schools have been historically slow to embrace online learning, a market in which many other higher education institutions have seen soaring enrollment and revenue.
New Hampshire Bar Association President Jaye Rancourt says online learning is likely have a larger place in legal education, as schools adapt to a changing market.
But she says there’s already growing tension between older, more experienced lawyers and the younger generation coming into the field and relying more on email to communicate.
“I would hate to see a movement of more younger lawyers coming out of law school relying even more on technology and less on face-to-face contact.”
Another part of what may be holding law schools back are restrictions when it comes to accreditation.
“Under our rules, a law school may give students up to 12 units of credit for fully online courses toward the Juris doctorate. And the standards, our standards require a minimum of 83 credits to graduate,” said Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education for the American Bar Association.
He says the ABA will likely approve a proposal later this year to bump up the maximum number of online credits toward a J.D. to 15.
But while Currier says that may go further as demand increases, he doesn’t connect a move toward online learning as a response to declining enrollment.
Regardless, he says the most important thing is maintaining the high quality of a law degree.
“The scrutiny that distance learning gets, not only from our accreditation process, but just in general, is the understandable, first-level reaction, first wave reaction to innovation.”
Still, there are signs the ABA is willing to allow some experimentation.
“We need that innovation to meet the challenges of the next century. Law practice isn’t going to stay the same, legal education cannot stay the same,” says Eric Janus, President and Dean of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a commercial on the school’s website.
Starting in 2015, William Mitchell will be the first law school in the country to allow students to earn a J.D. largely from home.
This was only made possible through a variance granted by the American Bar Association.
Broderick says law schools are entering a new age, through stressed that in-person education remains a vital part of the school’s program.
“It’s important to be here. That’s true in a lot of higher education, but it can’t be you either have to be here or not receive it,” Broderick says. “So everyone’s trying to find the balance. But I don’t think anyone is saying we don’t need to talk about it.”
And since the recession began, there’s been a lot of talk about what led to such a drastic decline in law school enrollment.
“It was kind of the perfect storm,” says Rancourt. “A lot of lawyers coming out of law school. Law firms not hiring. People not retiring from the practice of law.”
Not to mention students being leery of taking on massive debt.
Tuition this past year at UNH Law ran students about $41,000.
The story isn’t much different across the borders.
Enrollment at Vermont Law School has dropped by 30 percent since 2010. Not coincidentally, the school had its credit rating downgraded just last month.
Applications are also down at the University of Maine Law School.
And while Dean Peter Pitegoff says the school has been able to keep class sizes steady, they’re also looking at broadening their online course offerings.
As for UNH Law, online learning is only a part the equation.
Broderick credits much of the school’s ability to weather the storm to its merger with the University of New Hampshire, which was finalized earlier this year.
“Being a small, private law school is nice, but it’s not a 21st century model. So I think the students here would tell you that this is a more attractive place because we’re part of the university.”
And despite the steep drop in applications, there’s been good news.
UNH Law recently cracked the top-100 list for law schools in the country and boasts the third-highest job placement rating among law schools in New England, behind only Harvard and Yale.
And last year, the school launched the Rudman Center and a new Sports and Entertainment Law Institute.
Professor Michael McCann came to UNH from Vermont Law last year to head up the institute.
He says the program is a way the school is adapting to the changing legal market and to meeting the needs of its students.
“At the end of the day, students have to be willing to spend either part or whole, depending on what kind of aid they get, a good amount of money to pursue an education that has been maligned in a number of media sources.”
Students like Chelsea Lamberson are doing just that.
She chalks up the decline in interest to a bad economy and is bullish on the future of her profession.
“I really think lawyers are always going to be needed in our country, no matter what. I like the saying when something bad happens, the first person people call is their banker and their lawyer.”
She’s graduating this month and, as of this week, is a finalist for a job with a Division 1 university.