It’s not unheard of for a law school facing a bloated incoming class to offer scholarship money to students on condition that they defer for a year. But Thomas Rozinski, a prelaw adviser at Touro College, saw something completely different this year when a student with a middling score on the Law School Admission Test sought to defer her enrollment at a second-tier law school for personal reasons.

“They offered her $25,000 a year if she would come this year. That’s $75,000,” said Rozinski, an assistant professor in Touro’s political science department. “She was at the bottom of their range” for LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages. “Quite frankly, I was surprised she got in at all.”

It’s anything but business as usual during this year’s law school admissions cycle. That seemed obvious to the nearly 500 prelaw advisers and law school admissions officers who gathered in Washington in mid-June for a five-day conference of the Pre-Law Advisors National Council.

“It’s quite competitive this year,” said Heather Struck, assistant dean at Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences and chairwoman of the organization. “I have seen, anecdotally, some very generous merit scholarship offers.”

Law schools experienced a 25 percent decline in applicants nationwide during the past two years, due in part to the tight job market for new lawyers and a more widespread understanding of the high costs of attending. Many have responded by accepting a larger percentage of applicants and sweetening their scholarship packages, in hopes of locking in prospective students.

For their part, many would-be law students sense opportunity and are aggressively negotiating scholarship offers from competing schools, according to prelaw advisers and admissions deans. “I think every conversation I’ve had over the past six weeks has been, ‘And how much money can I get?’ ” Wake Forest University School of Law assistant dean for admissions and financial aid Jay Shively said during one conference panel discussion.

‘IT’S A BUYERS’ MARKET’

Law schools typically dole out merit scholarships to students with sterling academic credentials, but Shively said that even applicants with LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages below Wake Forest’s median have been leveraging competing offers for money. “Although it’s a daunting time for jobs, there has never been a better time to apply to law school,” Shively said. “It’s a buyers’ market right now, and the numbers have never been better.”

It’s difficult to gauge how much the situation has changed this year. Law schools won’t know who ultimately will enroll until the fall — and won’t know the amount of their scholarship commitments until their incoming classes are final. The American Bar Association won’t release statistics on total law school enrollment for the coming school year until 2013, but first-year enrollment declined by 3,791 students last year — about 7 percent.

Based on that drop and the 16 percent decline in the number of LSATs administered this cycle, University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Jerome Organ predicted that first-year enrollment would fall by approximately 4,000 students nationwide during the coming academic year.

Law schools most likely upped their acceptance rates in response to the declining number of applicants, Organ said, but that gain probably would be offset as a lower percentage of admitted students matriculate.

Making the picture even murkier is the unusually robust amount of wait-list activity this year, according to a number of advisers and admissions deans. More schools are dipping into their wait lists to fill classes, which is having a domino effect on lower-ranked schools where admittees who appeared to be committed are slipping away.

“There’s been a strong upward migration,” Rozinski said. “A lot of the top schools underadmitted, and now they are calling people on their wait lists. The tier-two schools are seeing their classes erode.” He has counseled some of his Touro applicants to hold off on committing to any school until June or July, because they might actually get into schools they didn’t think possible.

The University of Michigan Law School is ranked No. 10 by U.S. News & World Report, but a larger than normal number of its admittees are getting the nod from even higher ranked schools where they had been put on wait lists, said assistant dean for admissions Sarah Zearfoss. “Wait list activity is way up,” she said.

Jessica Soban, assistant dean and chief admissions officer at Harvard Law School, declined to offer any admissions numbers until the fall, but expected “any trend to be consistent with what our peer schools report.”

This admissions cycle hasn’t been all that different from previous ones for top-ranked Yale Law School, said associate dean Asha Rangappa. Yale — which takes only about half as many students each year as Harvard’s 400 — saw a 7 percent drop in applications. Still, Rangappa expected to enroll a typical first-year class of 205 students without relaxing its admissions standards.

SCHOLARSHIP MONEY

With law classes undersubscribed and applicant commitments coming later in the game, scholarship money has come into play more than ever before.

Zearfoss said that one law school, which she declined to identify, offered half-tuition scholarships to each wait-list applicant they decided to offer admission. These offers can create discord within a law school class, she said, particularly when lower-performing students receive more scholarship money than students with better academic credentials.

Even Michigan admittees aren’t immune to scholarship fever.

“Our second deposit deadline just passed, and a number of people came back to us and said, ‘When I tried to withdraw from the other school, they said, ‘We’ll double your scholarship or give you a free ride.’ ” Zearfoss said. “It’s frustrating for us because as a general policy we don’t do a lot of negotiation. But it’s also emotionally hard on the student. They just want things to be settled.”

Even though Michigan increased its acceptance rate this year from the traditional one in five applicants to one in four, its incoming class still may end up slightly smaller than last year, she said.

The trickle-down effect of competition for students may be hitting lower-tier schools the hardest. Sherolyn Hurst, assistant dean for admissions and scholarships at the unranked Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, acknowledged that her school has had a hard time competing.

“It’s frustrating for me,” she said. “I’m seeing colleagues offering scholarships to people they wouldn’t have admitted last year. We don’t have millions of dollars in an endowment, but we’re trying to do right by our students.”

She later noted that some other unranked schools appear to be struggling even more than Texas Wesleyan to fill their incoming classes.

Kathy Uradnik, a political science professor and prelaw adviser at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, is happy to see her students accepted at a broader cross-section of law schools but uncomfortable with what she views as the arbitrary nature of the admission decisions and scholarship offers. She recalled a standout applicant from St. Cloud State several years ago who received no scholarship offers and borrowed the entire cost of her legal education. Now, even lower-performing students are being wooed with acceptance offers and scholarship money, she said.

“They don’t shine as much and they’re getting 50-, 75-, and 100 percent scholarships,” Uradnik said. “It’s essentially a free-for-all. It’s almost like selling yourself to the highest bidder. Everybody is competing.”

Prospective law students would be wise to read the fine print of scholarship offers, warned University of Southern California Gould School of Law director of admissions David Kirschner.

Some schools, including USC, don’t place conditions on their scholarships other than requiring that recipients don’t flunk out. But others require students to maintain grade-point averages of 3.0 or above — meaning a hefty percentage may lose their scholarships after the first year, given the steep law school grading curve.

“The problems arise when schools are not transparent about the stipulations,” Kirschner said. “Students are bringing me a scholarship offer from school X, and I always say, ‘How is that offer broken down? Are there stipulations?’ Our $20,000 scholarship for three years looks much better when you compare it to a $30,000 a year offer with stipulations.”

Uradnik said that many of her students have received scholarship offers this year containing grade stipulations, and that they often don’t understand the implications.

Applicants should take advantage of the relaxed admissions standards and unusually deep pot of scholarship money while they can — there simply isn’t enough money to keep doling out scholarships at this pace every year, said Sophia Sim, associate dean for admissions and financial aid at George Washington University Law School.

Monica Ingram, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the University of Texas School of Law, agreed. “It’s not going to take law schools long to right things,” Ingram said, noting that Texas’ incoming class will be smaller than usual. “This year is an anomaly. It may be off next year as well, but things will correct themselves.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.