A snapshot of application totals at several top law schools across the country shows a 4.6% drop for this year’s class, indicating a third consecutive year of decreases in the number of people applying to juris doctor programs nationwide.

Nine out of 10 top-tier schools surveyed by The National Law Journal reported a downturn in applications for the new school year compared with 2005, when all law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) received 6.3% fewer applications than in 2004, according to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC).

In 2004, when the total number of applicants was 95,800, all schools received 4.8% fewer applications, which marked the first year of application declines since 1997.

The trend likely will not pinch top schools or elite law firms, but observers say it could have a trickle-down effect.

“Lower-tiered law schools could find, with fewer applicants, that they’re forced to admit those who they normally wouldn’t,” said Michael Schill, dean of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law (UCLA). His school experienced a 7.6% drop in applications this year.

“It’s not a stunning ‘Oh my gosh, where are the applicants?’ situation,” he said.

The schools surveyed by The National Law Journal this year were UCLA, Yale Law School, Stanford Law School, Harvard Law School, New York University School of Law, University of Chicago Law School, University of Michigan Law School, Georgetown University Law Center, University of Texas School of Law and University of Florida Frederic G. Levin College of Law.

Biggest drop in Fla.

The school with the greatest decline in applicants was University of Florida. With a 9.3% drop this year, 2,711 people applied to the Gainesville, Fla., school, compared with 2,989 last year.

Other law schools with marked decreases in applications included University of Texas, which had 4,999 applications, representing an 8.1% decline, and Stanford, which received 4,625 applications, representing a 6.3% decline.

The only school to report an increase in applicants-although slight-was the University of Chicago. Some 4,829 people applied to the school this year, compared with 4,801 last year-a 0.5% increase.

Ann Perry, the University of Chicago’s assistant dean for admissions, attributed the increase to the “energies” that the law school spends on recruiting, including a new blog and the administration’s participation in job fairs and speaking engagements.

She also said that Chicago law firms have gained prominence in the world market, making the location attractive to would-be lawyers looking to work at big firms. “There’s a buzz about the city,” she said.

The shrinking number of applicants may be a leveling-off from the dramatic escalation of a few years ago. In 2001, the number shot up 17.6% and rose 9.5% the following year, the LSAC reported. It does not appear the recent decline is a result of a reduction in the number of applications that individual applicants submit to schools. In fact, the LSAC reported that in 2001, each applicant submitted an average of 4.6 applications, a number that steadily increased to 5.8 applications in 2005.

Observers point to today’s solid economy as the reason for the downturn in the number of applicants. The theory is that more people enter the work force after graduation rather than opt for law school.

UCLA’s Schill said that a smaller number of applicants may mean that the applicant pool is filled with those who are more committed to becoming lawyers.

Among the schools surveyed, Georgetown received the highest number of applicants for the 2006-2007 school year, a total of 11,223.

Last year, the school amassed 11,702 applications. A distant second was New York University, which had 7,571 lawyer hopefuls apply for its juris doctor program. The law school with the fewest number of applicants was University of Florida, which received 2,711 applications.

The drop in all applicants for the third year in a row is not likely to have a significant impact on the nation’s top law firms, said Ward Bower, a principal with Altman Weil, a law firm consultancy.

But smaller firms could take a hit. “The effect might be farther down the food chain,” he said.

Bower explained that if regional, lower-tiered law schools are forced to compromise their standards by accepting less-qualified applicants, then the result could harm regional and local firms looking for associates. “It’s a talent business,” he said. “All you’ve got to work from is what you’re able to recruit.”

One school with remarkable results was University of Iowa College of Law, which was not included among averages of the 10 other schools. The Iowa City, Iowa, school reported that it received 1,809 applications, a 35% increase from last year’s 1,339 applications.

The school’s dean, Carolyn Jones, who said she was not available for an interview, wrote in an e-mail message that the increase occurred because the school hired a full-time admissions dean.

Eight of the 10 schools surveyed supplied data about minority applicants. The average decrease in minority applications at those schools was 2.6%.

Two schools reported increases in minority enrollment: Yale, with a 0.8% uptick, and Georgetown, with a 4.8% jump.

Harvard and Michigan tied for the biggest decline in minority applicants, at 6.8%. According to the LSAC, minority applicants at all ABA-accredited law schools declined 4.7% in 2005, among persons who identified themselves as minorities.

Eight of the 10 schools also provided information about the number of applications they received from women.

The average number of women applicants at those schools declined by 4.4% for the 2006-2007 academic year, and none of those schools experienced a rise in the number of women applicants over last year.

UCLA experienced the sharpest decline, 10.6%, while Yale experienced the smallest decrease of women applicants, at 0.75%. Applications to the University of Florida by women fell by 6.2%.