One of my college roommates had a cat which had a remarkable ability to feign nonchalance if, for instance, it tried to jump onto a high ledge and failed. Within a split second of crashing to the floor, Toonces would immediately begin an unhurried and dignified exit away from the scene of the disaster, to the point where you could almost hear him say "I meant to do that."
In the next couple of weeks, as 1L orientation starts at most law schools, I suspect we're going to hear a lot about the institutional sense of prudence and social responsibility that has led to enrolling a class x% smaller than usual. What seems to have happened is that by this spring it was becoming obvious to a large number of schools that they would have to either enroll a significantly smaller class than normal, or enroll a class with lower LSAT/GPA numbers, or throw a lot more money at applicants, or some combination.
The same thing happened last year, but preliminary indications are that this year will feature even more stress on enrollment numbers, to the point where over the last few weeks word is beginning to trickle out regarding reduced class sizes at various schools, including:
Texas: 300 1Ls, down from 375 last year and 400 the year before.
Minnesota: 220 1Ls (normal graduating class is around 275).
Arizona: 125, down from 158 last year.
Wake Forest: 130, down from 185
Hastings: 320, down from 400
Penn State: 170, down from 220
Hamline: 134, down from 200
William Mitchell: 250, down from 309
In addition, Rutgers-Camden is looking at a class one half its normal size, and Cooley is projecting another big drop after last year's 29% decline (in its case this represents several hundred fewer 1Ls compared to the class of 2013).
Of course schools don't know exactly what a class's size will be until students actually enroll, since people deposited at one school will be getting pulled off wait lists at other schools until the last minute, plus some people will decide not to go to law school at all, or at least not this year. So it's going to be an interesting couple of weeks.
At schools where the operating budget is largely tuition-driven (a category that includes the vast majority of law schools) an unplanned or planned as of six weeks ago shortfall in the size of the first year class is likely to create fiscal problems. Some faculties will take the opportunity to reassess things such as hiring plans and other new major expenditures for this coming year, while others will ignore the first rule for dealing with the discovery that one is in a hole, and will continue full steam ahead. The most common rationalizations employed by schools in the latter category are likely to include:
(1) As soon as the economy gets back to normal, so will we.
Leaving aside that in terms of the broader economy the present situation may well now represent a new normal, this ignores that the market for lawyers has been contracting for at least 20 years, and that there's every indication it will continue to do so.
(2) We can retool ourselves in such a way as to ensure we'll get a comparatively bigger piece of a shrinking overall pie.
This of course is just Special Snowflake Syndrome at the institutional rather than the individual level.
(3) We need to spend even more than we're spending now, because in a hyper-competitive environment rankings are more important than ever.
This is my personal favorite, as it is much favored within my own institution, despite the fact that we increased tuition from $7,600 to $31,100 between 2003 and 2011, without any apparent effect on the school's ranking, which actually declined slightly. In any case this argument ignores that law school ranking in general and reputational ranking in particular -- the latter is inevitably the main justification for new major expenditures -- is quite sticky.
It also ignores that prospective students are getting much more sophisticated about how meaningless law school rankings are outside of very wide bands. There's essentially no evidence that employers care at all about whether a school is ranked 31st or 54th, despite the fact that law schools treat much smaller movements within the rankings as of apocalyptic significance. Prospective students are figuring this out much faster than law schools are, which means there's less excuse than ever for schools in an increasingly deeper hole to keep digging.