For the first time in recent memory, the number of applicants to law schools nationwide is falling.
The 12 percent decrease in law applications comes about a month after the publication of a popular article about post-graduation prospects for law students in the New York Times titled, “Is Law School A Losing Game?” The article reported that legal firms have lost about 15,000 legal jobs since 2008, while emphasizing that law students may graduate with debts of up to $200,000. In the weeks that followed, a flood of responses appeared in the National Review Online, the American Bar Association Journal and on message boards dedicated to law school admissions.
But University officials say Yale — where University Career Services fields an average of 400 requests for appointments about law school every year and 77 seniors from the class of 2009 applied to law school — is considerably different.
While eight of 14 seniors interviewed said law school seems like a common post-graduation plan for their classmates, many said graduating seniors have good reason to delay applying to law school.
WOULD-BE JDs IN DECLINE
The Law School Admissions Council, which administers the Law School Admissions Test, compiles data on the size of law school applicant pools each year. While the number of applications spiked last year, said Wendy Margolis, director of communications for the council, schools should not expect another increase. Instead, she said, schools have seen about 12.9 percent fewer applications thus far.
Margolis added that fewer people are taking the LSAT as well, with a 16.5 percent drop in attendance at the test administered this past December.
Over half of the seniors interviewed who expressed an interest in law school said that they are not applying this year, and are instead hoping to hold jobs before returning to school. The students cited a desire to gain real-world experience and earn money as the main factor in their choices to delay the admissions process.
“I wouldn’t earn a lot of money in public interest law, which may factor into my decision of when to go to law school,” Abigail Cheung ’11 said. “I may want to earn some money first.”
Three students interviewed said the cost of law school would be a key factor in deciding which law school to attend.
Margolis speculated that fewer students are interested in law school overall because of increased media attention regarding the impact of a poor economy on the legal job market.
“Last year, with the other sectors of the economy slowing down, people were taking the opportunity to enhance their education by going to law school,” she said. “People were still thinking that law school was a good investment. It is still a good investment, but people are just being more realistic about what the outcome is going to be.”
Two of four law school deans contacted said they are still working with strong applicant pools — despite the fact that both schools posted 12 percent decreases in applications. The two other schools contacted did not yet have figures.
Ann Perry, dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, said the drop in applications was the school’s first decrease in at least four years. Perry stressed, however, that a significant number of students are still applying — the University of Chicago has received 5,000 applications.
William Hoye, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at Duke University Law School, said competition is still stiff for space in the incoming class despite the decrease in applications.
“We will have 30 applications for every seat we have available in the class, and from my perspective, that’s plenty,” Hoye said.
Still, Perry said the relative drop in applicants may indicate that the economy is improving. Undergraduates may now prefer to find jobs immediately after graduation instead of returning to school to delay entering the job market, she said.
But at Yale, law school is not just a safe haven from a rough job market. Sijia Cai ’11, who applied to law school this year, said she thinks many Yalies apply to law school because it transitions smoothly from an undergraduate liberal arts education.
“I think it’s a common goals for political science and history majors, which are really popular majors at Yale,” Cai said. “A lot of students are aware of the other careers a law degree may lead to and they are looking for an outlet for their liberal arts majors.”
Elayne Mazzarella, deputy director at Yale Undergraduate Career Services, said Yalies turn to law school not just to prepare themselves to practice law, adding that students also use the degree to “to advance their careers, to make themselves more marketable in specific industries, to teach [or] for the love of learning.”
But Kwaku Osei ’11 said he does not think the desire to apply to law school is as prevalent as it seems.
“A lot of people say they’re considering it because there’s nothing else to do,” he said, “but the process is really complicated and the number of people who actually apply is much lower.”
He added that while most people have encouraged his own choice to apply to law school, his adviser in the Political Science Department told him not to apply. Osei said his adviser warned him of the high cost and the fact that law school only prepares students to become lawyers.
For some students, the decision to delay or decline applying to law school stems not just from financial concerns, but from a fear that the legal profession simply isn’t right for them.
Shelagh Mahbubani ’11 said she had planned to apply to law school, but decided against it after an internship with The Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit legal services provider in New York City.
“I got to see lawyers working, and I realized that I wasn’t interested enough in the work to be able to put in the hours that are required to be a good lawyer,” she said. “They work ridiculously long hours to prepare for trials and I don’t want to spend that much time around paper, and doing one kind of work.”
Thomas McCarthy ’11 said he will not apply to law school this year. Instead, he said he will wait until next year to decide if he wants to pursue a professional golf career before pursuing a law degree, and ensure that law school is the right choice for him.
“I’m unsure that there’s an overwhelming desire to apply to law school,” McCarthy said. “But I know, me included, that many students look to law school as a resume builder and a great option for those of us that are lost in what we want to do in the future. Whether it’s a good assumption or not remains to be seen.”
Yale Law School admissions officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.
Kaplan is offering free graduate school practice tests, include practice LSATs, in William Harkness Hall Sunday at 11 a.m.
Natasha Thondavadi contributed reporting.