Theresa Hallet, director of admissions, and Robert M. Harrison, associate dean for admissions and student services at St. John's University School of Law discuss the screening process.
Theresa Hallet, director of admissions, and Robert M. Harrison, associate dean for admissions and student services at St. John’s University School of Law discuss the screening process. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

At least four of New York’s 15 law schools are bucking a national trend in declining applications, according to preliminary figures provided by the schools.

New York University School of Law, St. John’s University School of Law, Syracuse Law School and the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center all received more applications in the 2014 admissions cycle than they did last year. Another five saw their applicants decline, while six did not provide numbers to the New York Law Journal.

Nationwide, applications are down 8.2 percent since last year, according to the latest figures released Wednesday by the Law School Admission Council. And they have fallen more than 34 percent since 2008.

Of New York schools providing figures, St. John’s saw the greatest jump. By late July, the school had received 2,840 applications, more than a 14 percent increase over last year’s 2,483.

“I was actually a little surprised, given the national decline,” Dean Michael Simons said. “It’s a combination of things. Our employment rate is up, our bar pass rate is up, alumni giving is up and therefore our scholarship assistance has increased.”

Indeed, St. John’s raised $3.8 million in donations for the 2013-14 fiscal year, and most of it will cover scholarships. That was more than double the prior year’s $1.7 million, which is typical for the school.

The school also revamped its recruitment strategy. This year, its specialized academic centers and legal clinics played a bigger role in admitted-student events. The goal, Simons said, was to show potential students how a degree from St. John’s would lead to a full-time job by graduation.

The national, four-year decline in applicants means there are fewer highly qualified candidates to go around. So whether a school’s applicant pool grows or shrinks, admissions officers must decide between cutting class sizes to maintain quality or enrolling larger classes with lower median academic credentials. The latter choice can hurt a school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking, and therefore its public perception.

St. John’s elected to admit a smaller first-year class whose median LSAT and GPA scores are higher than last year’s. Fewer students, the dean said, will allow the school to offer more individualized career development.

“To do that effectively, smaller is better,” Simons said.

This year’s application figures are not final, as some schools are still accepting students. All American Bar Association-accredited law schools report their application numbers and class sizes to the ABA in October. The organization releases a national report each spring.

NYU Law saw an 8.2 percent increase in applicants, while Syracuse’s pool grew 6 percent. Touro Law received 5.2 percent more. Like St. John’s, both Syracuse and Touro plan to shrink their first-year class sizes. NYU Law declined to comment.

Syracuse Law attributed its increase to a marketing boost starting in January. Email blasts, phone calls and snail mail to potential applicants advertised its specialized programs and the opening of Dineen Hall, a just-completed, $46 million building that will house the school starting this fall.

The school plans to enroll up to 170 first-year students, down from last year’s 194, said dean of admissions Nikki Laubenstein. It admitted about the same number as last year, but its yield, the number of admitted applicants who enroll, has declined.

“There’s definitely competition from the higher-ranked schools and competition from schools offering merit scholarships,” Laubenstein said.

To counter that, the school has been quoting its most generous scholarship aid offers up front. In years past, Syracuse gave students a more conservative figure at first, expecting them to negotiate.

Touro raised an additional $1 million for scholarship aid this year. Separately, it added 21 endowed scholarships. Its first-year class will number about 180, down from last year’s 205.

“Given all the negative messaging out there about lawyers and the legal profession, I’m confident this year’s class is not going to law school on a whim,” said Dean Patricia Salkin. “They’ve made an affirmative statement that they want to help people, protect the rule of law and make a difference.”

Drop ‘Bottoming Out’

New York schools seeing a decline in applications for this fall include Albany Law School, the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Cornell Law School, Fordham University School of Law and the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University.

Hofstra’s 9 percent decrease represented a slowdown in the school’s four-year applicant decline. It expects to enroll a slightly larger class with a higher median GPA.

“This is kind of what we were expecting,” said John Chalmers, dean of admissions. “The drop seems to be bottoming out a little bit.”

National figures appear to tell the same story. U.S. law school applications spiked nationwide in 2008, as the financial crisis drove many to try their hand at a profession historically seen as secure and lucrative. Applications started falling in 2010, when it became evident there were not enough jobs for newly minted J.D.s. This year’s national 8.2 percent decline is the smallest year-over-year drop since 2010.

Chart: Applications for Fall Semesters. As of August 8, there were 352,406 law school applicants nationwide. There were 385,400 in 2013; and 2012 had 469,500.

Albany Law has seen a 19.5 percent applications decline. The school said it expects to admit a first-year class that is smaller than last year’s 187.

“We look forward to the first day of school, when we meet our new class and know our final numbers,” said Nick Crounse, assistant director of communications, in an email.

Applicants to Cardozo numbered 14 percent fewer than last year. Fordham Law’s applicant pool shrank 9.4 percent, while Cornell’s declined 2 percent.

At Cornell, this year’s dip came after an increase last year. It had been the only school in the state to see more applicants in 2013 over 2012.

Early indications show that declines for all U.S. law schools could continue next year. The number of LSAT test-takers hit a 14-year low of 21,803 for the June exam, a decline of 9.1 percent from a year earlier.

“My expectation is we’re going to reach equilibrium with the number of graduates matching the number of jobs in the next few years,” said Simons, the St. John’s Law dean, of national trends. “That’s good news for both law schools and students.”