Jerry Organ wasn’t surprised to hear last week that two of Minnesota’s four law schools are planning to merge in the face of dropping enrollment.

As a law professor himself, at the University of St. Thomas, he’s been blogging about the sagging fortunes of American law schools for some time.

Hamline University’s law school and William Mitchell College of Law, both in St. Paul, may be the first to merge as a result of the changing legal landscape. But Organ says some shake-up was inevitable. “Law school,” he wrote, “is an expensive proposition for which the return on investment is questionable.”

Since 1985, he wrote, the average law school tuition has soared more than 1,000 percent — from $2,000 a year to $22,000 — at public universities; and 400 percent at private schools, to more than $39,000 a year.

That didn’t seem to scare students away until the Great Recession, when the job market for law graduates took a hit. Suddenly, law school was no longer the safe bet it once was.

The resulting drop in applications — nearly 40 percent since 2010 — posed an existential challenge, according to Organ. “Many schools have found themselves in a ‘pick your poison’ scenario,” he wrote on the Legal Whiteboard blog in 2014. Either they settled for smaller freshman classes — and less tuition revenue — or they admitted some students they would have rejected in the past, with lower LSAT scores.

“If one focuses on the LSAT score as one measure of ‘quality,’ ” he wrote, “the period from 2010-2014 not only has seen a significant decline in enrollment, it also has seen a significant decline in quality.” One worry, he said, is that those students may have more trouble passing the bar and getting jobs.

But he hastens to add that law schools continue to attract “remarkable people,” and that their employment prospects are likely to improve, especially with fewer graduates competing for jobs.

“I think we are near the bottom in terms of applicants to law school,” he said. “I think things will gradually improve in the next two or three years.”

 

maura.lerner@startribune.com