Is the Trump administration’s early turmoil a gift to legal education?
Pundits have speculated that Washington’s recent turbulence will spur a surge in law school applicants, given the armies of lawyers—hailed by many as defenders of democracy—that assembled at airports around the country in the wake of President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.
Despite the hype, most law schools have yet to see a significant Trump bump, though some report that recent political events are foremost in the minds of many of this year’s applicants. Admissions officials at law schools who have seen an increase in applications say it’s difficult to attribute that rise to any one factor, but they allow that Trump is one of the many variables contributing to greater interest in the law, from both his supporters and those who oppose his policies.
If any school can make a case for a Trump bump, it may well be George Washington University School of Law, where applications are up 9 percent over last year. Admissions Dean Sophia Sim stopped short of attributing that increase directly to Trump, but she said the political climate has emerged as a major theme this admissions cycle.
“I don’t know if it’s a D.C. thing, but we’ve seen an increase [in applications], and a number of people in their application essays have talked about wanting to become more involved,” Sim said. “We’ve seen a slight uptick in the number of people wanting to do immigration law or sharing something they’ve read about that got them fired up.”
The school logged more drop-in visits in the days before and after the inauguration, she said, and several students at George Washington’s business school have expressed an interest in coming over to the law school — an unusual occurrence.
Applications are up only 1 percent this year at the nearby Georgetown University Law Center, according to Andrew Cornblatt, dean of admissions, but the energy and engagement among admitted students are unusually high.
“The noise about lawyers is much more positive right now,” Cornblatt said. “Before, it was just negative noise.”
The school may well have a higher-than-usual acceptance rate among admitted students due to their strong desire to be in Washington right now, he said. That interest was palpable at a January open house for 350 admitted students.
“I just got the sense that people wanted to talk about this, talk about [Trump], talk about the courts and all this stuff that’s going on that lawyers will be smack in the middle of,” Cornblatt said. “I think being in this city, we feel it even more.”
Like many other admissions deans, Cornblatt predicted that any real law school admissions boost related to Trump would likely materialize next year. Trump’s inauguration and his controversial travel ban occurred late in the admissions cycle, leaving little time for newly-inspired would-be lawyers to sign up for the LSAT and submit applications.
Nationwide, the numbers don’t reflect inspiration, at least not yet. Applicants to all American Bar Association-accredited law schools were down 1.5 percent as of March 3, compared with the previous year, according to the Law School Admission Council. Last year, 77 percent of all aspiring lawyers had submitted applications by early March.
Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School, said she would not be surprised if some people are inspired to pursue legal careers because of Trump’s presidency, though it’s still too early to tell.
A late surge in applications is still possible. The number of people taking the Law School Admission Test in December was up nearly 8 percent. The council has yet to release the number of LSAT takers in February, which is the final opportunity to earn a score before the application period ends at most schools. (Elite schools generally close their application period of March 1 or earlier.)
The national figures, however, don’t tell the whole story. Some law schools have seen applications go up significantly, while others have seen them remain flat or fall.
“I want to believe in the concept that all of the current political shenanigans are making young people think more seriously about going to law school, but that has not been borne out in our applicant pool. We’re down from last year,” said Bryan Zerbe, director of admissions at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Should Hastings see a surge of applications in the last two weeks before its deadline, Zerbe said he would put more stock in the idea of a Trump effect. Similarly, admissions deans from Fordham University School of Law and the University of Houston Law Center said they haven’t seen any evidence that the Trump presidency is impacting their admissions cycles.
Harvard Law School has seen a 5 percent increase in applications this year, said Jessica Soban, associate dean for strategic initiatives and admissions. But the school also saw a 5 percent rise in applications last year, before Trump took office, so it’s hard to chalk the difference up to the man now in the Oval Office. Still, an unusually high percentage of current Harvard applicants have discussed in personal statements and interviews how the change in administration inspired them to consider law, Soban said. That’s pretty standard every four years, however.
“Every presidential election year there is a rise in the number of applicants who are talking about the impact of that and how they think about their career playing out,” she said. “Alternatively, people who have just come off of campaigns are now thinking about what to do next. To some extent, we anticipated that would be a part of our conversations this fall.”
Laura Rosenbury, dean of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, sees signs that a boost is on the horizon. She was peppered with questions about immigration law and executive powers while speaking to several campus pre-law societies in February. Undergraduates and current law students alike are more engaged than ever in politics, she said.
“I do see undergraduates responding to recent events,” Rosenbury said. “Whether or not that will convince them that law school is the right choice for them, I don’t know. But they were certainly asking a lot of good questions.”
Admissions deans acknowledge that lawyers could slip out of the spotlight should a relative calm descend upon Washington, blunting a potential law school admission boom next year. But for now, they’re enjoying the legal profession’s reputation boost and new prominence.
“I think there’s going to be heightened visibility of the ways in which attorneys are impacting everything from political process through to regulatory activity and the lawmaking process,” said Soban, at Harvard. “Sometimes the roles attorneys play are less visible. Right now, we’re seeing a moment where the roles attorneys are playing are at the forefront.”