Twice every year, the release of Connecticut bar exam results provides a glimpse of how well the latest crop of law school graduates has been trained. But beyond the passage rate, there’s a simpler statistic: The number of people who sit for the test each year can be considered a bellwether of the overall health of the legal market.

When figures for the February exam were recently released, they revealed the smallest group of test takers in recent memory. A total of 278 people took the exam, down 79 from the February 2013 exam.

The decline is even more pronounced when looking at the yearly totals, including both the February and July exams, over the past eight years, which includes the period when the economic downturn hit the legal industry nationwide.

In 2006, a total of 1,339 fledgling lawyers took the Connecticut bar exam. That number shrunk by 539 people, to 801 test takers in 2013. Even though the overall pass rate has been relatively consistent for decades, at about 72 percent, law firms both large and small have considered the implications of having fewer new lawyers to choose from at hiring time.

Peter Giuliani, a law firm marketing consultant in Weston, calls the trend a simple matter of supply and demand. He said it could be some time before the number of bar applicants stabilizes. “I think this trend will bottom out when the demand for new lawyers picks up,” Giuliani said. “That said, given the way major clients are managing their legal spending, it will be quite a while before there is an increase in demand.”

Stanley Twardy, managing partner of Day Pitney, agreed. “I think fewer people taking the bar exam represents what’s going on with the lower number of students going to law school,” he said, adding there are also fewer jobs out there. “I think the supply and demand nature of things works quite well. When there is more demand, there will be more people going to law school [and taking the bar exam]. But I don’t think you will see hiring pick up to where it was 10 years ago.”

At the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee, which is charged with preparing and administering the bar examination, executive director Kathy Harrington said officials have been tracking the decline for several years. “We’ve been told this trend is being seen nationally and here as well; we’ve seen a decline of about 25 percent fewer people taking the exam over the past five years,” Harrington said.

She attributed a small part of the Connecticut decline to a scheduling change. The New York and Connecticut exams used to be on separate dates. Now they overlap, forcing young lawyers to choose one or the other. Some choose to take the New York exam first. Still, Harrington said: “We expect that over time, anyone who wants to be admitted in both states, and chooses to take the New York exam before Connecticut’s, will eventually take the Connecticut exam. We expected to see that happening by now.”

Having fewer exams to administer means less work for Harrington’s small staff, allowing it to focus more on its responsibility of investigating the character and fitness of each applicant for a law license. “If anything, we’re doing far more work on character and fitness investigations than we had in the past,” Harrington said.

There’s also a new section of the exam. Starting in February, the state reduced the number of essay questions from 12 to six. But it added a practice-oriented exercise in which applicants are provided with “files” and asked to perform tasks that an attorney would do, such as prepare a motion for summary judgment, Harrington said.

“It went very smoothly,” Harrington said. “We expected we might see a difference in the pass rate,” but it was consistent with where it was using the old exam.

The Young Lawyers Section of the Connecticut Bar Association monitors the number of people taking the bar exam in order to plan for CBA membership drives. The section president, Chris Nelson, of Nelson Votto in New Haven, said the reduced numbers are “myopically embraced by some lawyers as being something positive in the short term” because fewer lawyers means less competition for business.

But he doesn’t see that as a good thing. “Ultimately, it’s just a mortgage on our future, because the fewer lawyers there are, the more likely people are going to look for alternatives to getting lawyers. And I think that is a massive problem,” he said.

The immediate past president of the Young Lawyers Section, Jonathan Shapiro, of Shapiro Law Offices in Middletown, is less alarmed. He calls the reduced number of exam takers a short-term response to a reduced job market. “I would not necessarily call it a good thing, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing either, at least not at this stage,” Shapiro said. “The marketplace has definitely changed in the last six years, particularly in the hiring practices of law firms and the willingness of clients of larger firms to pay for the work of young attorneys.”

He said large law firms have responded to client demands by making more lateral hires instead of bringing in large groups of new associates each year, as they once did. “What I am actually more concerned about,” Shapiro said, “is the number of lawyers who have passed the bar exam but are without jobs and are not getting the proper training to become successful lawyers. Something needs to be done about that.”

At Day Pitney and other large firms, supply and demand has led to a reduced number of summer associates. With fewer permanent jobs to be offered, Twardy said his own firm has seven summer associates this year, down from about 12 annually “before the bottom fell out of the legal market.” Other firms have shelved their summer associate programs entirely.

For larger firms, Twardy said, the reduced number of bar exam takers is not an immediate concern. “It might impact smaller firms that have fewer people to pick from,” Twardy said. “For us, it won’t have an impact because most of the folks we hire are two different types: We get clerks from federal judges and we hire some from our summer program. I don’t think this will have an impact on firms that hire out of summer programs.”

Marnie Rubin, director of legal recruiting at Robinson & Cole, is likewise unworried by the bar exam statistics. “We continue to see a strong and diverse applicant pool of passionate and committed legal professionals,” Rubin said.

The supply and demand relationship that’s been driving people away from legal careers is something the state’s law schools are watching closely.

At the University of Connecticut School of Law, professor Leslie Levin said the decline in bar exam numbers mirrors the post-2008 dip in college students seeking to become lawyers. Some of that, she said, had to do with people “realizing not everybody who goes to law school is going to necessarily make a lot of money.”

“We don’t have a crystal ball to know what’s going to happen,” said Levin, whose job includes providing hands-on experience to students through legal clinics. “But my guess is at some point, there is going to be a need for more people to become lawyers. It’s really hard to know exactly when that’s going to happen.”•