CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte appears set to regain its crown as the largest U.S. city without a law school, given the closing of Charlotte School of Law and a quiet announcement by UNC Charlotte this month that it does not intend to fill the void.
"We do not envision creating another law school in the state," Chancellor Phil Dubois told the school's incoming freshmen and transfer students last week during UNCC's annual fall convocation.
"There is simply no employment market at the moment for students who have earned the J.D. degree," Dubois said, according to a copy of his remarks.
Experts agree, saying the lingering damage from the recession a decade ago along with the changing legal needs of consumers have softened the demand for new lawyers.
"I just don't know of a lot of interest now in another law school in Charlotte," says Nancy Roberson, longtime executive director of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association.
"It's expensive, really expensive (to start one). A new school has to prove itself and we already have some excellent law schools in North Carolina. Going through the process in an 'up' market, that's hard. Doing it during a soft market, that's really difficult."
Both Roberson and Jay Perry of Charlotte, who owns a national job-placement service for attorneys, say the legal sector here and across the country still hasn't recovered from the economic crash.
"The market for graduates is still not good. It's still not good at all," says Perry, a Wake Forest law grad who founded Perry Placement Inc. in 2000.
"Demand is shrinking. There are more law schools going to go under. Thank goodness Phil Dubois and the other people at UNCC are wise enough to say, 'We don't need one.' "
Hiring by law firms nationwide remains flat, and there are an estimated 50,000 fewer legal jobs to fill compared to pre-recession levels of 2007.
Meanwhile, the country's 200-plus law schools annually churn out tens of thousands of new lawyers – about 37,000 in 2016, a 7.5 percent drop from the year before. Just under 62 percent of the graduates found full-time jobs requiring a law license, according to the annual employment survey by the American Bar Association.
The overall numbers hide a dichotomy: Not all law schools are created equal – either in the education they provide or the success their graduates have in actually finding jobs that justify the time and money spent on acquiring a degree.
Let's start at the top:
In North Carolina, that means Duke, where 92 percent of the 2016 law school graduates found full-time jobs requiring passage of the bar exam – a significant improvement over the school's showing 2011 when the legal profession was still woozy from the pounding it took during the recession.
At the bottom of the state list is the Charlotte School of Law, which closed Aug. 11 after being both placed on ABA probation, becoming becoming the first accredited law school in the country to be expelled from the federal government's student-loan program, then having its state license pulled by the University of North Carolina.
In 2016, 23 percent of Charlotte Law's grads found full-time work requiring a law license, according to the bar survey. While a third of the class had either found jobs in which a law degree was considered an advantage or professional positions outside of the legal field, a staggering 38 percent of the students – many carrying among the country's highest law school debt – had not found a job of any kind six months after graduating.
Even an established law school such as UNC Chapel Hill's shows that a job in the field is not guaranteed. Two-thirds of its law school grads found full-time jobs in their field in 2016, about the same performance as five years ago. About 11 percent of the class was still jobless a half year after getting their diplomas.
Other schools fared more poorly. At Campbell University, just about half of its 2016 graduates found full-time positions requiring bar passage. At N.C. Central, it was only a third.
With generally fewer entry-level jobs to fill, law firms have become more picky, Perry says.
"If you do well and finish at a good law school, there will be jobs. But when I say a good law school, I mean a good law school – North Carolina or Duke. At Wake Forest, if you don't finish in the top half of your class, you're not going to get a job – at least not the job you envisioned when you enrolled."
In 2016, almost 75 percent of Wake's law students had full-time legal jobs within six months of graduating – trailing only Duke. Even so, Perry says he has recommended that his alma mater shrink its law school classes because "We're not employing enough people."
The economic uncertainty surrounding the field has not overlooked by prospective law students. Law school applications fell by 40 percent between 2010-15 to historic lows before slightly increasing in 2016.
That drop cost colleges hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tuition and led many of them to lower entrance standards, leading to a decrease in the median entrance scores, according to the bar.
Charlotte Law, a for-profit school, sharply increased admissions in the wake of the recession with what appear to be disastrous results, In 2016, its graduating class of 340 – by far the largest in the state – was almost four times as big as it was five years earlier.
But 43 percent of its 2011 graduates found full-time jobs requiring a law license, compared to 23 percent in 2016. In 2011, only 15 percent of the graduates were jobless compared to 38 percent five years later. Despite their limited job prospects, Charlotte Law graduates carry some of the highest law school student-loan debt in the country, the bar association says.
Given Charlotte Law's deepening struggles, Dubois and his staff pulled together a presentation earlier this year for the school's board of trustees on whether there was a need for a public law school in this part of the state. He says the available statistics all pointed to the same answer: No. .
Now, the school's leaders are pursuing another option: a possible partnership with the UNC Chapel Hill law school to provide a graduate-level degree in legal studies, aimed at government or human resource workers in highly regulated institutions, such as financial services, health care and energy. Discussions began in the spring.
In time, Dubois believes the city will land a new public law school.
"For a city the size and importance of Charlotte, it's not a matter of whether, it's when," he said.
"But it's not now."