Nearly everyone in legal education expected the number of law school applicants to fall off this academic year. But they weren't prepared for this.
As of mid-January, 27,891 people had applied for seats in American Bar Association-accredited law schools. That represented a 20 percent decline since last year (and 2012 was hardly a banner year itself, as the number of applicants fell by nearly 14 percent.) If the trend holds through the final months of the admission cycle, law schools would see a 38 percent crash since their peak in 2010.
"I am surprised by the extent of the decline," said University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Jerome Organ, who has been tracking law school enrollment and economic trends. "I had anticipated a decline, but possibly a more moderate decline than the last two years."
It looks like one for the record books: Upon seeing the application figures from the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law professor Deborah Jones Merritt decided to research the last time U.S. law schools had attracted such a small applicant pool. She couldn't find records before 1983, but at no time during the past 30 years had the applicant totals slipped below 60,000. (There were 175 ABA-accredited law schools during the early 1980s; there now are 201.)
"I was pretty surprised when I looked back and saw the prospective applicant levels would bring us back to 1983," Merritt said. "There's a general sense people have that applications are cyclical, but I don't see any way for a quick rebound here."
It appears that the drop in applicants this year will be steeper than during the two previous years. At the present rate, between 53,000 and 54,000 applicants will vie for places in ABA-accredited schools this year, down from 68,000 in 2012.
Organ attributed the situation in part to the ABA's release last spring of detailed graduate employment statistics broken down by school. They showed that only 55 percent of 2011 law graduates had found permanent, full-time jobs that required bar passage within nine months. That may have persuaded some would-be law students to reconsider, he said.
"It's become clear that there is no chance of redemption for this cycle," said Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School. "The December LSAT sitting is already over and there is no reason to think that there will be a larger-than-normal February sitting."
February is the last opportunity for prospective applicants to take the Law School Admission Test in time to meet this year's application deadlines. During the December sitting, nearly 16 percent fewer people took the test compared with 2011. Merritt said that most prospective law school applicants were starting their undergraduate educations during the Great Recession, as large firms were shedding associates and even partners in shocking numbers. That turmoil shattered the perception of the legal profession as a low-risk and lucrative career path. "I would be surprised to see applications go up again, unless there are major changes in the legal industry," Merritt said.
Just four law schools thus far have seen increases in applications, whereas 82 have seen declines of 30 percent or more, according to the LSAC. Another 62 schools have seen declines of between 20 and 29 percent, and 32 schools experienced declines of between 10 and 19 percent. The LSAC data do not identify which schools fall into those categories.These declines have not been evenly distributed throughout the country. Law schools in New England have seen a relatively modest 14 percent reduction, whereas the Northwest, Mountain West, Midwest and Great Lakes regions have seen declines of 22 percent or more.