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The Scalpel and the Gavel 

Local colleges are adapting to a world that wants more doctors and fewer lawyers

click to enlarge JIM CAMPBELL
  • Jim Campbell

If the United States only had more doctors, experts say, health care would be better and cheaper. Yet with Baby Boomers aging, big groups of doctors retiring and a wave of newly insured people resulting from the Affordable Care Act, the need for doctors is far outpacing the speed that medical schools can pump them out.

Across Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho, laments Lisa Brown, chancellor of Washington State University-Spokane, there's but one medical school: the University of Washington. That school only accepts 120 new students a year. "There are hundreds more who apply that don't get accepted," Brown says.

This May, WSU spent $250,000 of donor money commissioning a feasibility study to examine creating its own separate medical school.

Washington State's recently dedicated Biomedical and Health Sciences Building, where 40 UW students currently study medicine on the Riverpoint Campus in Spokane, has already given WSU a head start — though UW hasn't been happy about the potential for more competition.

"This is a really key time to talk about how we are going to provide the health care workforce of the future," Brown says.

Just a few blocks away from WSU-Spokane, Gonzaga's law school is facing the opposite problem: Since the recession, the number of jobs for lawyers has plummeted. Big law firms that once offered premium salaries have radically downsized. State budget cuts made government law jobs scarcer, the Internet has made searching case law simpler and outsourcing has made reviewing documents cheaper.

In 2009, the American Bar Association warned that law school could leave graduates reeling from massive debt and floundering in a grim job market. Prospective students heard that message loud and clear.

Enrollment began to fall across the country, and Gonzaga was not immune: From 2010 to 2013, first-year enrollment at Gonzaga's law school fell by nearly 40 percent. Fortunately, law school spokeswoman Andrea Parrish says Gonzaga is doing comparatively well.

"When you look at national averages, Gonzaga does significantly better for employment," Parrish says. Of 2013 graduates, 64 percent found full-time, bar-admission-required jobs by February 2014, compared to 56 percent nationally.

Parrish says Gonzaga is adapting to the weak job market. In June, the law school launched an intense, accelerated, year-round program allowing select students to finish law school in two years instead of three. Parrish says the program is narrowly targeted at applicants who already have jobs lined up, but need a law degree.

"We specifically look for students who have a game plan," Parrish says.

Fortunately for Gonzaga, the legal market is about to shift yet again. In 2012, a survey showed that 51 percent of Washington state bar membership is 50 or older. "There's going to be a huge number of lawyers retiring," Parrish says.

Gonzaga is ready to train their replacements. ♦

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