The grim job statistics in nearly every corner of the legal world are surely enough to make any aspiring lawyer think twice about diving into massive debt to attend law school.

So why are so many people lining up to do just that?

Law school applications increased by 7 percent and the number of applicants by 3 percent nationwide for this year’s incoming class compared to last year, according to the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). A handful of law schools saw their applicant pools swell by 30 percent or more.

“How much do applicants know about the contraction of jobs in the legal industry? It’s hard to say,” said Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law who has urged law schools to provide more accurate information about graduate employment. “People could be thinking, ‘Well, in a few years things will change.’ I think we’re seeing a structural change in the industry. Even if things do come back, it won’t be to the same degree we saw just a few years ago.”

The number of lawyers at the 250 largest U.S. firms fell by 4 percent last year, according to The National Law Journal‘s 2009 survey of the nation’s 250 largest law firms. The latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the legal sector shed 22,000 jobs in the past year.

An Altman Weil survey of managing partners at more than 200 U.S. law firms that was released in June found that 42 percent of respondents predicted that reductions in the size of their first-year associate classes will be permanent.

“It’s absolutely consistent with every recession we’ve seen, with more people looking to graduate programs and into law school,” said Jim Leipold, the executive director of NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement. “Historically, it’s not been a bad strategy. I do think, for the immediate future, there are going to be fewer entry-level jobs at law firms.”

Arline Laurer is among those banking on a turnaround during the next three years. The 21-year-old from a small town outside Rochester, N.Y., plans to begin studies at the University of Toledo College of Law next month. An internship at the Kings County district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, N.Y., while an undergraduate at St. John’s University solidified her ambitions.

“I’ve been watching [the legal job market] pretty closely — especially in the past year, as I get closer to going to law school,” she said. “I’m obviously about to take on a lot of debt. I’m hoping by the time I get out of law school the job climate will be better.”

That cautiously optimistic attitude prevailed among the budding law students who discussed their decisions with The National Law Journal. Most reported at least some awareness of the changing legal market, but chose to push forward because they have always wanted to be lawyers or believe a law degree will widen their career options.

In a recent survey of 330 pre-law students by Kaplan Test Prep, 52 percent felt “very confident” that they would land a legal job after graduation, although only 16 percent felt confident that most of their fellow graduates would be as successful.

Law school has always in the back of Minnesota native Emily Johns’ mind, but she gave it a more serious look during the past two years as her employer, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, declared bankruptcy and offered buyouts.

“First and foremost, I’m doing this because I want to be a lawyer, not because I’m running away from these scary times in the journalism industry,” said Johns, 28, an education reporter who will soon be a 1L at the University of Minnesota Law School. “But it did make me think seriously about my Plan B. I think I’m doing to right thing. There’s no way you can know for sure.”

There’s evidence that the economy is pushing law school applications up. The number of people applying to American Bar Association-accredited law schools either held steady or declined in each year between 2004 and 2008. The tide changed for last fall’s incoming class, which saw a 5 percent jump in applicants, according to LSAC data. This year’s application cycle was the first completed entirely within the down economy — from the time most applicants decide to sit for the LSAT to when they send in their deposit checks to secure their spot in the incoming class.

“I expected to see some increase in applications — maybe 5 or 10 percent,” said Sarah Zearfoss, assistant dean for admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, where applications increased by 20 percent this year. “I’ve never had this kind of an increase. Some of it is a disconnect with people who aren’t aware of the trend in legal hiring. At the same time, there aren’t that many jobs available in other industries right now.”

The LSAC has yet to analyze data on the average age of this year’s applicant pool, but Zearfoss and several other admissions officials saw a higher percentage of hopefuls applying while still in undergraduate school — yet another indication that bleak job prospects were a motivating factor.

The surge was not spread evenly by gender, according to the LSAC. The percentage of male applicants grew by nearly 5 percent, while the increase in female applicants was 1 percent. Zearfoss speculated that women, who are generally more risk-averse than men, may be more reluctant to take on the debt needed to pay for law school right now.


The applicant pool also appeared a bit savvier than its predecessors, as far as reading the fine print, admissions deans reported. Admissions offices fielded more questions than ever about job placement rates, career services and finances.

“They are showing concern, in terms of what careers services can offer, what kinds of internships students get and things like that,” said Faye Shealy, associate dean for admission at College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law, which saw a 26 percent increase in applications. “We had some people planning to enroll this year who decided not to come because they needed to work and save up some money.”

The number of LSATs administered this year indicates that many people considered law school but opted not to apply. The number increased by more than 13 percent — far more than the 3 percent increase in actual applicants.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why certain schools saw dramatic increases when others did not, though administrators speculated that cost, changes in national rankings, increased recruiting or even winning sports teams may have swayed applicants. Some of the biggest increases were at public law schools, which tend to cost less than their private counterparts. Applications were up by 70 percent at the University of Alabama School of Law, 65 percent at the University of Maine School of Law and 37 percent at the University of Illinois College of Law.

“In a climate like this one, we’re seeing applicants who are conscientious shoppers looking to get the greatest value for their dollar,” said Aaron Latham, the interim director of law advancement at Alabama, which won the NCAA Bowl Championship Series football title last year.

Univ. of Alabama School of Law 70 percent
Univ. of Maine School of Law 65 percent
Cornell Law School 50 percent
Univ. of Illinois College of Law 37 percent
Univ. of Iowa College of Law 36 percent
Yale Law School 13 percent
Univ. of Calif., Berkeley School of Law 5 percent
Harvard Law School 2 percent

Maine law Dean Peter Pitegoff attributed his school’s boost in applications to increased outreach and relatively low tuition.

At the same time, some private law schools also saw an increase in applications. Cornell Law School was up by 50 percent, Duke Law School by 25 percent and Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law by 15 percent, to name a few.

The idea of law school as “the great default” is hardly new. Law school has long been more attractive than business school or medical school to college graduates with vague career ambitions, Leipold said. He attributed that in part to the versatility of a law degree, which can translate into the corporate world, public policy or any number of other fields.

However, the idea that law school is always a solid choice should be retired in light of the growing price of a legal education and the dimming jobs prospects, several critics said.

“People who haven’t done any investigation into what lawyers do are foolhardy to pursue law school,” said Zearfoss, the Michigan admissions dean. “Anyone using law school as a default should rethink that.”

The tipping point — when the cost of law school will dissuade those are not seriously interested in practicing law — is on the horizon, Tamanaha said. He cautioned, however, that he has made that prediction before.

“In 15 years of teaching, I’ve known a lot of students who came here because they didn’t know what they wanted to do,” Tamanaha said. “A lot of this is about cyclical irrational decision-making. It’s based on a very human trait, which is over-optimism. For the people who have always wanted to be a lawyer, they should go to law school. For anyone else, it’s not a good decision.”


Allissa Klatt was caught off-guard when she showed up to take the LSAT last fall and recognized about half of the faces in the room. She worried that the high level of interest in law school among her fellow undergraduates might hurt her chances of getting accepted.

“I was surprised by how many people were planning on going to law school,” said Klatt, 22, who just graduated from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, with a degree in theater and English. “It may be because of the economy. Right now, in the job market, there’s nothing. I know a girl with a degree in chemistry who is working at Gordmans,” a discount department store.

Klatt isn’t using law school as a delay tactic, even if some of her classmates are. She has wanted to be an attorney since childhood and saw no point in putting off her career ambitions because of turmoil in the legal industry. After months of research, she settled on Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa — a school she considers vastly underrated.

She hopes to become an advocate for the disabled, partly because she has watched people take advantage of her handicapped brother and other vulnerable people.

Although Klatt is confident that law school is the right choice for her, the price tag of a J.D. still leaves her a little queasy. Drake offered a scholarship that will cover half her tuition, but Klatt still expects to take out about $90,000 in loans. “The first time I looked at the grand total of what it would cost to get a law degree, I cried,” she said. “And then I realized that this is what I want to do. I’ll have debt for the rest of my life, and that’s that.”

– Photo of Allissa Klatt by Mark Kegans

The dismal economy hasn’t prevented Liz Payne from pursuing law school, but she did think twice about her timing. The Washington native delayed going to law school for a year to save some money.

“I want to minimize my debt,” said Payne, a 2007 graduate of George Mason University. “I’d like to be making the big bucks when I graduate, but the chances of that happening are very slim. Idealism is nice to have, but any law student counting on landing a $100,000 job right out of school is being rather naïve.”

Payne, 25, insists she’s not looking at the legal world through rose-colored glasses. She has friends who have been laid off from paralegal and clerk jobs with law firms, and is well aware that the industry is unstable right now. Even so, she would like to land a job at a law firm and perhaps specialize in the legal issues surrounding social media — an area she manages for a Washington nonprofit.

Payne was influenced by her father’s positive law school experience, which he told her helped to prepare him for the corporate world. She’s been announcing her intention to be a lawyer since elementary school.

Payne applied to 10 law schools and settled on the University of Baltimore School of Law. She zeroed in on schools within legal markets that she thinks have a good chance of bouncing back in the next few years. Her search included a detailed analysis of job placement rates and alumni networks.

“You just can’t count on having a stable economy,” she said. “Ideally, when I graduate, the economy will be great, but am I counting on that? No.”

– Photo of Liz Payne by Diego M. Radzinschi

You can’t say that Jeff Holt hasn’t done his homework. The 27-year-old spent the past couple of years chatting up the lawyers he has encountered on and off the golf course about the legal market in Atlanta and about the wisdom of going to law school right now.

“I’ve met a lot of attorneys through golf,” said Holt, a former collegiate golfer who now heads Atlanta Junior Golf, a nonprofit that runs golf tournaments for kids. “They helped me make up my mind. I’ve been talking to them about where they see things being three years from now. The consensus is that the job market will be a little better than it right now, but not back to what it was five or 10 years ago.”

Holt also sought out the advice of young attorneys and recent law graduates, who were supportive of the idea. The generally positive responses helped convince Holt that now is the right time to go to law school — something he has wanted to do since his undergraduate days at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Ga., in the mid-2000s. He intended to attend law school just two years after finishing college, but that stretched into five because he enjoys his work with Atlanta Junior Golf.

“It’s time for me to try something new and face a new challenge,” he said. “I can’t wait to learn a new way to think.”

Holt will attend Georgia State University College of Law in Atlanta this fall, with plans to practice business law at a firm. The location is ideal, he said, and the tuition is low compared to other schools he was considering. “I’m not as confident in the things I can’t control as I wish I could be, like the job market,” he said. “But golf has taught me that, at the end of the day, all you can do is try your best and hope that it works out.”

– Photo of Jeff Holt by Zachary D. Porter

Yazmin Wadia acknowledges that she hasn’t been paying as much attention to the legal job market as she probably should, given that she is poised to start law school next month.

Granted, the 20-year-old has had plenty of other things occupying her time and mind — not the least of which was completing her undergraduate degree in political science and history in just three years at Arizona State University. “Getting my undergraduate degree has been a large focus of mine,” said Wadia, who moved to Arizona from Canada as a child. “I’m now starting to look and see what my career options are with a law degree. I haven’t been putting too much focus on that yet.”

Wadia turned down a paying job at The Public Forum Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that promotes public discourse, in part because she felt that she wasn’t yet ready to join the 9-to-5 workday grind. Instead, she plans to attend Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., which lured her with a scholarship and a strong public interest law program. She hopes to parlay a law degree into a job with a large nonprofit in Washington such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League or Amnesty International.

While she hasn’t done as much research as she knows she should into the job prospects for new law graduates, she understands that she’ll face stiff competition to land her dream legal gig. “It definitely does scare me, knowing that you’re competing in the job market with Ivy League graduates from Harvard and Yale,” she said. “But it doesn’t hurt to try. What’s the worst that can happen?”

– photo of Yazmin Wadia by Jeff Noble