Conventional wisdom holds that recent college graduates and frustrated workers flock to advanced degree programs during tough economic times in order to wait out a bad job market and bolster their resumes.

But that scenario doesn’t seem to be playing out yet at most law schools.

As of late February, the total number of applicants at law schools approved by the American Bar Association had risen by less than 1%, according to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) — the organization that administers the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Total applications were up by about 4% for those law schools, meaning more people were applying to multiple schools this year.

It’s still too soon to gauge the full law school admissions picture for 2009, however. In previous years, about 76% of law school applications were in by this time of year, thus a surge of applications could occur later than usual at schools with ongoing deadlines.

Several deans at law schools with ongoing admissions deadlines said they expect that some applicants will wait longer to submit their materials, partly because the downturn in the economy happened during the time of year when many people start or even complete the process of applying to law school. Schools with deadlines that have passed noted that applications generally came in later this year than in 2008.

Some evidence indicates that a late wave of applications could be on the way. An 11.5% increase in the number of people who took the LSAT occurred in February, which is the last test of the 2008/09 year. The bulk of the increase — 11% — were first-time LSAT takers, according to the LSAC. Those February test takers still could apply to some law schools for the coming academic year, although many of them probably will apply for admission to the class that starts in the fall of 2010.

A number of law school deans said that they don’t expect to see the full effect of the dismal economy on law school applications until that 2010 admissions cycle. That cycle is likely to bring a perceptible increase in applications, said DePaul University College of Law Dean Glen Weissenberger. “It’s going to take some time for people to realize how bad the economy is,” he said.

Overall applicant numbers at DePaul haven’t changed much so far this year, Weissenberger said, but the quality of applicants for the school’s part-time evening program was better this year. High-quality applicants who would typically be interested in the day program now seem to be interested in the evening program, Weissenberger said. The higher quality evening candidates could indicate that people with a good job may be reluctant to walk away from that in order to attend law school full time, he said.

Thomas M. Cooley Law School — where a majority of students attend school part-time — hasn’t seen much of a change in applicants this year either, according to Dean Don LeDuc.

“I think the economic problems hit late enough in the year that the application process had already started,” he said. “I suspect we’ll see an increase in applications next fall if the job market is still down.”

Both Cooley and DePaul could possibly see a bump this year because they are still accepting applications, but the deadline has passed at most top-ranked law schools, including the University of Michigan Law School. Sarah Zearfoss, the assistant dean for admissions at Michigan, reported that the number of applications this year was similar to the previous cycle.

“At first, things were looking bad and people were hesitant to apply to law school, partly because they didn’t want to take on the debt,” she said. “But it really picked up in the last month and a half.”

Additionally, the school saw more applicants from the finance world than in previous years, Zearfoss said. Students coming out of undergraduate finance programs and people who have work experience in the financial world applied in larger-than-typical numbers.

There’s been no significant increase in the number of finance people applying to New York University School of Law, said Assistant Dean of Admissions Kenneth Kleinrock. However, the school has seen a 3% increase in applications this year. If history is any guide, Kleinrock said the application numbers will likely increase even more next year.

Some schools seem to be bucking the trend of stagnant applications numbers with significant jumps this year. Among them is Northwestern University School of Law, which had an 11% increase in applications for its three-year J.D. program, said dean David Van Zandt.

“It’s a nice jump for us,” Van Zandt said. “There may be a flight to quality. People may be thinking that if they go to law school right now, it should be at a top program that will upgrade their ability to land a good job.”

Several schools in the Washington area told the Blog of the Legal Times — an affiliate of The National Law Journal — that applications increased this year. Georgetown University Law Center reported receiving 12% more applications, George Washington University Law School has seen a 8% jump, and the University of Virginia School of Law is up by more than 10% compared to last year.