COLUMBIA, Mo. – Tenia Phillips has heard the horror stories about life after law school, circa 2011, from crushing student loan debt to recent graduates serving coffee at Starbucks.
The reality check didn't deter the 27-year-old Texan from pursuing her childhood dream, though it took four years of working as an apartment leasing agent before she could start fall classes last week at the University of Missouri law school.
"I had gotten to the point in my life where it was either now or never," she said. "Nothing in life is guaranteed. The job market can go back up again or back down."
The days of top law school graduates having their pick of six-figure jobs at boutique firms -- or at least being assured of putting their degrees to use -- are over.
Post-graduate employment rates are at their lowest levels in 15 years. The typical student leaves school nearly $100,000 in debt. And after several years of recession-driven enrollment gains, applications to law schools nationwide are down nearly 10 percent this year.
The sobering statistics have prompted plenty of soul-searching in the legal academy, with calls for schools to provide more accurate job-placement data as well as efforts by some law schools to admit fewer students to avoid dumping a glut of newly minted J.D.s onto an unforgiving job market.
"The sense that one can go to law school and get rich quick, that it is the lottery ticket-- those days are well past," said law dean Larry Dessem at the University of Missouri, where first-year fall enrollment is down 11 percent and applications declined nearly 17 percent.
The lessening interest in law school can be seen at flagship public universities in Missouri and elite private schools such as Washington University in St. Louis, which reports a 12 percent enrollment decline.
New student enrollment at the University of California-Los Angeles is down 16 percent, while the University of Michigan reports a 14 percent decrease. WashU, UCLA and Michigan are top 25 schools in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings.
"This year, people realize that this is not a one-year economic decline," said Sarah Zearfoss, assistant law dean and admissions director at Michigan. "It seems to be a much longer-term problem."
That's not necessarily bad, she said. Long considered a refuge for the hyper-ambitious, law schools may now be attracting more committed students, said Zearfoss.
"Now that people are aware it's not a cakewalk to get a big salary, they're thinking more carefully and a little more rationally about making this choice," she said.
Or, as Dessem put it, "That's going to lead to a lot more satisfied lawyers down the road."
That satisfaction could come without a fatter paycheck. According to the National Association for Law Placement, only slightly more than two-thirds of spring 2010 graduates had jobs requiring law licenses nine months later -- the lowest mark since the industry group starting keeping count.
Overall, 87.4 percent of the class of 2010 had any sort of job nine months after graduation, a 15-year low.
Those figures include 11 percent working part-time and others holding temporary jobs. And the national median salary for new law school graduates declined from $72,000 to $63,000 over the past year.
Several colleges have recently scrapped plans to build new law schools, including the University of Delaware and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Stung by criticism that prospective students aren't aware of those unflattering statistics, law schools accredited by the American Bar Association will now be required to report the types of jobs their graduates obtained, not just overall employment rates. The ABA approved the change this summer at its annual meeting.
"The problem of a lack of transparency, a disingenuousness, is very real," said University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos. "The law school degree as a guarantee for job as a lawyer is just not anywhere close to being true."
The changing industry has more students questioning both the value and costs of a law degree. Disenchanted students -- and at least one anonymous professor at a top school -- are taking their complaints public on what have become known as law school "scam" blogs.
Others are taking their complaints to court, appropriately enough.
Earlier this month, former students at New York Law School and Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., filed a class action lawsuit over what they called inflated employment rates. A similar suit was filed in May against Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
James Leopold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, said such criticism "adds to that culture of doubt surrounding legal education."
"The whole economy of delivering legal services, and the structure of these services, is changing," he said, describing changes that include a move to "offshore" legal jobs as well as a growing reliance by corporations on contract attorneys rather than in-house counsel.
"Are we producing too many lawyers? It's a question I can't answer," Leopold said.
Larry Lambert, a 28-year-old veteran from St. Louis, struggled with that very question before deciding to enroll at Missouri this semester. A candid conversation with a burned-out lawyer had "stopped me cold in my tracks," Lambert said.
In the end, a strong public service ethic honed during his time in the Navy prevailed. Lambert hopes to work as a federal prosecutor or in another position where he can "be a part of something bigger."
"That's one of the best things to happen to the profession in a long time," he said, referring to the declining interest. "People don't go into social work thinking they want to get rich. They want to help people. The law should be like that."