UW Law School changes curriculum in midst of major applications decline

By  | 

Published: Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013 --- 11:15 p.m.

Bare trees and bundled up students means it's finals season at the UW-Madison Law School.

"You have to be very dedicated and very disciplined" Jair Alvarez said.

In his third year, Alvarez has the routine down. He's specializing in business and criminal law so in the future he can help the people from his past. Alvarez moved to Wisconsin when he was 11.

"I grew up very, very poor," Alvarez said. "I grew up around people who were constantly getting arrested. I've seen a lot of things that the average person in Madison doesn't see. That's why I came to be a lawyer. I grew up around communities that were mistreated by the system and were abused by the people in power. And I knew that somebody had to do something about it and somebody had to grow out of the situation."

A semester away from earning his degree, Alvarez is preparing for life's next chapter. Like most of his peers, he has no idea how those pages will read.

"People can't be used to this whole past ideology that you're going to graduate and work for the same person for your entire life, making $100,000 like our parents did," Alvarez said. "That's just not a reality anymore."

The reality is, the legal profession took a big hit when the economy tanked. Fewer people are able to afford attorneys, and basic legal advice is now available online. Among the largest law firms, they're hiring 30 percent fewer associates. Employment rates for recent law school graduates has dropped seven percent. And for those who do find employment, on average they'll make $61,000--$10,000 less than five years ago.

"Our decline from last year was 31 percent," said Rebecca Scheller. She sees all the applications that come into the law school. The decline amounts to about a thousand fewer prospective students.

"It used to be we would receive close to 3,000 applications every year. So to see a big decline like that was kind of a surprise," she said.

A survey from Kaplan Test Prep shows more than half of law schools nationwide have smaller enrollment this year. UW's still admitting about the same number, but there are changes to the curriculum to fit the changing job market.

"The students used to just get that legal research and writing component in their second semester," Scheller said. "Now they're receiving three credits both in the fall and in the spring to really prepare them for that rigorous writing they may do in their first summer after law school."

Practical training is exactly what some employers look for. The 300 attorneys in the Wis. State Public Defender's Office need to provide legal representation in all 72 counties.

"It may be that the law schools are compensating and enhancing the work they put into this clinical program because they know that in a tight economy, that employers, and particularly the public sector, we need students that are pretty much ready," said Michael Tobin, the Deputy State Public Defender.

Yet at a starting salary of $49,000 a year, Alvarez, who interned at the public defender's Milwaukee office this summer, says that's just not enough money to pay off his debt.

Consider that tuition for Wis. residents is more than $60,000. For out-of-state students, it's nearly double that number.

The financial burden has gotten some attention. An American Bar Association task force called for an overhaul of the legal education system this Sept., including providing more financial aid. President Obama even suggested law schools should think about condensing the standard three-year program into two.

"It's pretty difficult to tell what will happen going forward," Scheller said.

That uncertainty is in part why Alvarez doesn't even plan on applying to jobs in his field. Instead, the 25-year-old hopes to get a job at the University working on diversity issues.

"More than anything, I came here to learn the law and my civil rights," Alvarez said.