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San Francisco Bay Area law schools are getting their pick of students as people contemplate a legal career as an alternative to a slow economy and lousy job market. But while the bad economic news may be good for law school applications, it’s not so hot for students who have just earned their J.D.s. Law firms are scaling back — and that means tough choices for debt-saddled grads. According to the Law School Admission Council, applications shot up 17.9 percent nationwide for 2002-03, after rising 5.6 percent the previous year. And the numbers are even higher in the Bay Area. The University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, University of San Francisco School of Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law, Stanford Law School, Santa Clara University School of Law and Golden Gate University School of Law reported increases of between 20 percent and 50 percent in applications compared with 2001. By contrast, the National Association for Law Placement Inc. announced in July that for the first time since 1993 the national employment rate of new law school graduates has decreased. “[Recent grads] will have to be more savvy in their job hunt,” said Sari Zimmerman, the director of career services at Hastings. “They will have to have more range in terms of the types of jobs they will consider, as well as the geographic region they’re willing to work in.” The incoming class is the first group of applicants since the end of the dot-com gold rush, and the avalanche has given admissions directors a larger — and more diverse — pool from which to choose. “We not only had more minority applicants, but a stronger pool overall,” said Jeanette Leach, assistant dean for admissions and diversity services at Santa Clara. She said this is the largest increase in applicants the school has seen since 1990. USF saw the largest Bay Area jump in 2002, getting more than 50 percent more applications than in 2001. Golden Gate had a 25 percent spike, while Boalt and Santa Clara each had about 20 percent increases. While the pool of applicants rose dramatically, most Bay Area law schools are not increasing their class sizes in response, saying they’re not equipped to handle a substantial increase. Tracy Simmons, assistant dean of admissions at Golden Gate, is an exception. She said her school is planning a large increase in class size, with an incoming class of 260 students compared with 165 students admitted in 2000. “The increase [in applicants] won’t continue, so we need to capitalize on it now to prepare for the lean times that come once the economy recovers,” Simmons said. Most Bay Area law schools are seeing incoming classes this year filled with many experienced, mid-career law students. But at Golden Gate, which traditionally has served older students looking for new careers, the effect is the opposite. “We have seen significantly more students coming directly from school because they can’t find a job,” Simmons said. Admissions personnel cite the sagging economy and slow job market for this high surge in applications, but some see other factors at play as well. “The economy plays a part in the increase, but media plays a part, too,” said Suzanne Carlson, director of enrollment management at Hastings. “There’s a lot of attention given to landmark cases in the media and the role of the attorneys in those cases. There are more television programs about lawyers.” COMPETITIVE MARKET Just as getting into law school is hyper-competitive in this market, those trying to find a job — or even a summer associate post — are facing harsh realities. Some of the Bay Area’s largest firms significantly cut their summer associate hires. Palo Alto’s Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati trimmed its group of summer associates by more than 50 percent from last year, and Pillsbury Winthrop’s program in San Francisco is down more than 40 percent, according to Recorderand law.com affiliate The American Lawyermagazine. Though Bay Area law schools only saw a slight post-graduation employment decrease — Stanford fell from 99 percent to 97 percent last year — career counselors throughout the Bay Area said they are concerned. “We are hoping the change won’t be dramatic,” said Joanne Karchmer, Boalt’s associate director for public interest programs. “What we’re seeing for this fall is the same number of employers coming to interview, but they are seeing fewer students. When the economy was stronger, the firms had seven students scheduled, and now only four are scheduled. “I would be shocked if [the employment statistics] stayed the same — it was extremely good in the past.” One positive effect the bad economy might be having is the pressure it puts on students to re-evaluate and be more creative in their career paths. Some local schools have reported a resurgence of students enrolling in public interest programs. Susan Robinson, associate dean for career services at Stanford, sees the renewed interest as an indication that students are forced to explore more options in a tight market. “A lot of our students come in already interested in public interest,” Robinson said. “But going into a career in public interest has always been a more difficult career path than just showing up to career day and interviewing with firms.” In addition, high student-loan debt traditionally forces many students into higher paying law firm jobs, Robinson said. “But in a tight market, with firms hiring less, it evens out a little bit.” Some students are attracted to the loan-forgiveness options that a career in public interest offers, Zimmerman said. “We tell students that the highest levels of job satisfaction are found among small firm attorneys, public interest attorneys and government attorneys,” Zimmerman said. Related charts: Bay Area Law School Admissions 2001-2002 Where’s the Class of 2001 Working?

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