Oct. 20, 2015—As the legal industry undergoes what many see as a period of transformation brought on by the Great Recession and new, technology-driven business models, University of Houston Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes recently participated in a "think tank" to address the profession's future.
Baynes, along with University of Houston System General Counsel Dona Hamilton Cornell, was a featured guest recently at a "Future of Law" workshop held at the downtown Houston offices of Strasburger LLP.
Along with an outside facilitator and a small group of Strasburger attorneys, Baynes and Cornell offered their perspectives on how law schools and institutional general counsels are adapting to the rapidly evolving legal world.
For law schools, the changes have been reflected in a steep decline in applications that began with the onset of the Great Recession and has continued through this year. The facilitator, John Terry, asked Baynes to describe the current "thinking in law schools" in regard to that trend.
Baynes noted that he couldn't speak for other law schools, but said this past nationwide admission cycle saw the smallest decline in applications since the downturn began, about 2 percent. "I suspect nationwide that we are at about the bottom of the trough, he said.
"Plus, there was an increase in the percentage of June 2015 LSAT test takers and in those signed up to take the October 2015 LSAT. For the University of Houston Law Center, we saw a 9 percent increase in applications during this cycle, and more than a 20 percent increase in nonresident applications.
"Many law schools have adapted to the decline by shrinking their class sizes in order to ensure the high quality of credentials of the entering classes," Baynes said. "At the University of Houston Law Center, our entering class has shrunk from a high of almost 300 JD students prior to the Great Recession to 216 students in the current entering class. We have been able to maintain a strong median UGPA of 3.54 and LSAT of 159. We also have been able to increase the size of our current incoming LL.M. class to almost 100 students from 52 before the recession; many are from all around the world.
"Many law schools have adapted to the change in the supply of high quality applicants by pursuing small JD classes and expanding other offerings like LL.M.s and masters in law-related areas. The fears that law schools would go out of business doesn't seem to have happened" Baynes said.
He also noted that as the number of law school students and graduates decline and the baby boom generation retires, law firms and other legal employers will have a harder time finding high-quality summer clerks and first-year associates.
"The Law Center has to be primed for the change in market conditions. It's very important for our students to get jobs. It's very important for us to be connected to the broader Houston, Texas, and national markets, as much as we possibly can," he said. "The University of Houston does this by ensuring that students are prepared at graduation to have the hard skills of research, analysis, reasoning, and writing, but also the soft skills of leadership, emotional intelligence, and ability to network. By preparing students to be well-rounded at graduation, they have the best chance to succeed in their careers and in life."
Cornell said her office, as part of the University of Houston, sees a huge advantage to partnering with the Law Center in recruiting. She mentioned that when considering new hires, she is open to candidates right out of law school since they are often eager to take on some of the less glamorous work in her office as a means of gaining valuable experience.