The number of applicants to Georgia’s five law schools has slipped this year, reflecting a trend seen in legal education across the country.

Applications are down by more than 20 percent at three Georgia law schools and by smaller amounts at two others, school officials told the Daily Report this week.

Nationwide, 27,891 people had applied for seats in American Bar Association-accredited law schools as of Jan. 18, according to the Law School Admission Council. That represented a 20.1 percent decline since last year, when the number of applicants fell by nearly 14 percent. If the trend holds through the final months of the admission cycle, law schools would see a 38 percent crash since their peak in 2010.

Applications dipped by about 25 percent at Mercer University School of Law, 23 percent at Georgia State University College of Law and 21 percent at the University of Georgia School of Law, compared with the same point in the admissions process last year.

The drop at Emory University School of Law was small by comparison, at 2.6 percent.

Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School has received 11 percent fewer applications so far.

“It seems to be a uniform phenomenon,” said John Marshall Dean Richardson Lynn. “It’s happening to everybody.”

Officials at the schools said there’s still time for them to make up ground before the application process closes in a few months.

Georgia State has been gaining ground since November, when its number of applicants was down 31 percent compared with the previous year, said spokeswoman Wendy Cromwell.

“Historically, we’ve been slow starters,” she said.

Law schools in the Southeast are faring slightly better than the rest of the nation. About 3,700 applicants had sought to get into law school, which represents an 18.6 percent decline compared with last year, according to LSAC.

“I am surprised by the extent of the decline,” said University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Jerome Organ, who has been tracking law school enrollment and economic trends. “I had anticipated a decline, but possibly a more moderate decline than the last two years.”

It looks like one for the record books: Upon seeing the application figures from LSAC, Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law professor Deborah Jones Merritt decided to research the last time U.S. law schools had attracted such a small applicant pool. She couldn’t find records before 1983, but at no time during the past 30 years had the applicant totals slipped below 60,000. (There were 175 ABA-accredited law schools during the early 1980s; there now are 201.)

“I was pretty surprised when I looked back and saw the prospective applicant levels would bring us back to 1983,” Merritt said. “There’s a general sense people have that applications are cyclical, but I don’t see any way for a quick rebound here.”

It appears that the drop in applicants this year will be steeper than during the two previous years. At the present rate, between 53,000 and 54,000 applicants will vie for places in ABA-accredited schools this year, down from 68,000 in 2012.

Organ attributed the situation in part to the ABA’s release last spring of detailed graduate employment statistics broken down by school. They showed that only 55 percent of 2011 law graduates had found permanent, full-time jobs that required bar passage within nine months. That may have persuaded some would-be law students to reconsider, he said.

“It’s become clear that there is no chance of redemption for this cycle,” said Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School. “The December LSAT sitting is already over and there is no reason to think that there will be a larger-than-normal February sitting.”

February is the last opportunity for prospective applicants to take the Law School Admission Test in time to meet this year’s application deadlines. During the December sitting, nearly 16 percent fewer people took the test compared with 2011.

Merritt said that most prospective law school applicants were starting their undergraduate educations during the Great Recession, as large firms were shedding associates and even partners in shocking numbers. That turmoil shattered the perception of the legal profession as a low-risk and lucrative career path. “I would be surprised to see applications go up again, unless there are major changes in the legal industry,” Merritt said.

Just four law schools thus far have seen increases in applications, whereas 82 have seen declines of 30 percent or more, according to the LSAC. Another 62 schools have seen declines of between 20 and 29 percent, and 32 schools experienced declines of between 10 and 19 percent. The LSAC data do not identify which schools fall into those categories.

These declines have not been evenly distributed throughout the country. Law schools in New England have seen a relatively modest 14 percent reduction, whereas the Northwest, Mountain West, Midwest and Great Lakes regions have seen declines of 22 percent or more.

Fifteen of the 31 schools polled by the Midwest Alliance for Law School Admissions said their applications were down by 28 percent or more. Only one school has experienced an application volume within 5 percent of last year’s total to date. The poll was confidential and did not report the admissions numbers for individual law schools.

Merritt said employment data provided by the nonprofit group Law School Transparency may have underscored that most law schools place graduates in jobs locally, encouraging prospective students to apply where they ultimately want to practice. Regions with major legal hubs may be more attractive now, she said.

The dearth of applications has become a touchy subject for admissions officers, Zearfoss said. “You almost don’t want to ask other admissions deans about their numbers,” she said. “It’s delicate.” In fact, a number of law school deans did not respond or declined to discuss their application figures.

Limited options

Law schools basically have two options at this point, Organ said. They can reach deeper into their applicant pools and take students with lower academic credentials, risking their U.S. News and World Report ranking; or accept smaller classes by continuing to insist on higher LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages—both of which are weighted heavily in the magazine’s law school rankings.

Most schools will probably decide upon a combination of approaches, according to a survey of incoming class sizes and the academic credentials of this year’s crop of students at U.S. News’ top 100 schools, as reported on their websites. (The survey was conducted by officials at a law school who requested not to be identified, citing sensitivities about tracking competitor schools). About two-thirds of those schools are bringing in smaller classes this fall, and approximately half reported lower median LSAT scores.

The situation means admissions officials can’t rely on traditional formulas for hitting their enrollment goals, Organ said. “It’s a really fluid marketplace. The people you used to admit with a 162 LSAT score may not be there, because they got into a school 10 spots above you in the U.S. News rankings. The top schools may be down a little on their profiles, but they’re still taking the top chunk of the applicant pool, and there are fewer people left for everyone else down the chain.”

Michigan State University College of Law expects about 2,750 applications this year, down by 28 percent from last year, said assistant dean for admissions and financial aid Charles Roboski. The school plans to reduce its incoming class by as much as 10 percent, and will accept a larger percentage of applicants this year to hit its goal of 280 new students.

“I believe that we’ll see more activity in the summer months as schools go to their wait lists, with the ripple effect that this has, and as schools make decisions regarding their classes,” Roboski said.

Law schools face an even more pressing problem than merely filling their classes, said Washington University in St. Louis Law School professor Brian Tamanaha. He is the author of Failing Law Schools, a scathing critique of legal education in this country.

“The class of 2010 was really the peak enrollment year, and that class graduates this spring,” Tamanaha said. “Although we had smaller entering classes in 2011 and 2012, having that larger class helped fill out enrollment. When that large class is replaced by a much smaller new class this fall, the cumulative effect will be quite significant.”

Schools will need to make up for those lost tuition payments. Several have already cut staff, and faculty could be next. “Now we’re going to see some program cuts,” Tamanaha said. “Our situation will change quite dramatically.”

Karen Sloan is a reporter for the National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate. Mark Niesse writes for the Daily Report.