New York’s 15 law schools have opened their doors to what many deans describe as one of the most motivated first-year classes in memory. But with significantly fewer prospective students to go around, the institutions are grappling with the repercussions of the decline.

Following a national trend, most of the New York schools enrolled fewer first-year J.D. students this fall than was the case six years ago. Only three brought in classes that were larger than last year’s.

According to figures from the schools, first-year J.D. class size overall is down 9 percent from last year and 19 percent from 2008.

The classes were culled from an applicant pool that has declined even more precipitously—20 percent from last year and 31 percent from 2008, the last class before the financial crisis spurred a two-year swell in applicants as people flocked to law school to avoid a dismal job market.

But after three straight years of falling applications, almost all New York’s law schools are adjusting their business models.

Many are left with the delicate task of admitting classes big enough to cover their costs but whose median Law School Admission Test scores and grade-point averages are not so low they would drag down the schools’ U.S. News and World Report rankings. Competition for the best recruits has never been greater. In most cases, schools are shrinking themselves to preserve quality.

“Every dean I’ve spoken to said even though they knew it was going to be a lean year, the pool was still not as robust as what we thought it would be,” said Anthony Crowell, dean of New York Law School. “Obviously from a revenue perspective this is not ideal.”

And there may be more lean years ahead.

“Most people believe this is a long-term trend, not an isolated occurrence,” said David Schraver, a partner at Nixon Peabody and president of the New York State Bar Association. “It’s a reflection of all the attention the media has given to the large average debt for recent graduates, the decline of high-paying jobs and the number of unemployed recent graduates.”

Of course, the effects of the economic squeeze vary widely among individual institutions. The state’s most elite schools are seeing less dramatic drops in applicants and have rosier financial outlooks than their lower-ranked counterparts. Since 2008, J.D. applications have dropped 50 percent at the University at Buffalo Law School while increasing 4 percent at Cornell Law School during the same period.

It’s particularly difficult for a lower-ranked school to fill a class these days, said William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law whose work focuses on empirical analysis of the legal profession and legal education.

“Everybody’s suffering, but everybody’s suffering at a different rate,” Henderson said. “But it ripples on through the hierarchy, and it’s most unpredictable at the very bottom. Harvard can always find someone. But if you’re a lower-ranked school, there may not be a qualified candidate you can admit who’ll pass the bar.”

Only 11 of about 200 American Bar Association-approved law schools in the United States saw an increase in applications over last year, according to preliminary data from the Law School Admission Council. Cornell Law was one of those.

“It was a small increase in applications, but given the national decline we were pleased with that,” Cornell Law dean Stewart Schwab said. “We had 195 J.D. students come in this year and we still had a wait list of great students. We’re holding our own on our LSAT scores. So in that sense we feel fortunate.”

New York University School of Law has seen a 19 percent drop in applications from 2008, though entering J.D. class size has fallen only 2 percent in that time. The school attributed the slightly smaller class this year to “normal fluctuation” and not a set policy to reduce class size.

Columbia Law ascribed a smaller first-year J.D. class—down 8 percent from 2008—in part to improve its student-faculty ratio. Although applications have declined 27 percent from six years ago, finding enough qualified students to fill a class is not a concern, said dean David Schizer.

“One of the ways we are incredibly spoiled, and it’s been true for a long time, is that there are many, many more people who would do well here than we can admit,” Schizer said. “If what we’re faced with is, instead of having three times as many people as we’d want to admit we have two times as many people as we’d want to admit—and that figure is meant to be illustrative rather than precise—then that’s not a bad position to be in.”

‘Measured Reduction’

The state’s mid- to lower-tier schools have not been so fortunate. Some of their LSAT and GPA medians have slipped even as they slash enrollment.

New York Law School brought in 327 first-year J.D. candidates this year, down from 446 last year. The drop carried a $5.4 million loss in tuition revenue from both full- and part-time students. Meanwhile, the 2013 entering class LSAT and GPA medians are down from six years ago, to 151 from 154 and to 3.17 from 3.29, respectively.

Enhancing employability for recent graduates was a driving force behind a multi-year, “measured reduction” after the recession enrollment boom, Crowell said. In 2009, under former dean Richard Matasar, the school brought in 736 first-year students—by far the largest class in the state. They graduated three years later into the worst-ever job market for lawyers.

“They were cannibalizing each other because they were really competing against each other for the same jobs at a rate that graduates from other schools weren’t,” Crowell said.

At Pace University School of Law, applications fell 43 percent and first-year enrollment dropped 17 percent since 2008. But the school signed up 28 additional 1L students this year, a gain of 20 percent over last year’s entering class. This year’s LSAT median for accepted applicants declined to 153 from 155 and its GPA median to 3.33 from 3.44.

“Our Office of Admissions has worked tirelessly over the last year not only to identify suitable candidates but also to find ways to meet their needs and enable them to enroll at Pace Law School,” dean Michelle Simon said in a statement but declined to elaborate.

Eric Lane, dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, said he expected to enroll around 235 J.D. candidates, down from 320 last fall. The school ended up with 216. Meanwhile, since last year the school’s LSAT and GPA medians have fallen to 154 from 157 and to 3.14 from 3.26.

“I wanted this drop [in class size],” said Lane. “The fact that the market was soft meant we reached this number sooner than I’d anticipated. …Ideally, I’d like to keep the school small as we move toward more experiential learning and more personalized attention per student.”

Syracuse University Law School managed to buck the trend of declining applications for a while. In fact, it received 58 percent more applications in 2012 than it did in 2008. However, applications for the current class plummeted 37 percent since last year.

“This year, ” said dean Hannah Arterian, “ we got the pain all in one blow.”

The school enrolled a J.D. class that was 20 percent smaller than in 2012 and 13 percent smaller than in 2008.

‘Much More Careful’

With the erosion of tuition revenue, law schools are under more pressure than ever to cut costs.

Some deans said they are renegotiating IT contracts with outside vendors, outsourcing administrative services where possible and trying to conserve energy to keep electricity bills low.

Others are bringing in fewer adjuncts and visiting professors. Fordham University School of Law, for example, which has in the past relied on up to 12 visiting professors at a time, will have only three this year.

So far, none of the New York schools have laid off full-time faculty—whose salaries are often their biggest fixed cost. But several schools are leaving slots open when professors leave or retire.

“There’s what’s nice to have versus what’s essential to have,” said Matthew Diller, dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “We’re being much more careful about who we are bringing in and not hiring new faculty unless it’s really critical right now.”

But almost no one is cutting clinical faculty, who often are not tenure-track. Schools continue to roll out new clinics in areas from elder law to intellectual property as potential employers place increased emphasis on hiring “practice-ready” graduates.

St. John’s University School of Law has reduced its full-time faculty through attrition and “careful planning” of retirements, dean Michael Simons said.

“I did not have a particular size goal,” Simons said. “But I did want to facilitate retirements and not replace some faculty positions. …That’s a key part of keeping tuition increases to a minimum and increasing scholarships and financial aid.”

The school has a total of 870 students this year, down from 941 in 2008-09. Net faculty size is in the process of being shrunk to 46 from 59 in 2011. Simons has, however, made three hires in IP and alternative dispute resolution, areas where he predicts job opportunities for recent graduates. He has also doubled the staff of the school’s career services office.

Brooklyn Law School has shed a dozen nonfaculty staff through a voluntary early retirement program introduced this spring. In announcing the program, CFO Laurie Newitz cited the “extended decline” in enrollment (NYLJ, June 17).

“Sure, we have fewer students,” said Nicholas Allard, dean of Brooklyn Law School, in an interview. “But we are very soundly financially managed. We have a strong endowment and assets, and we are looking at everything possible to see how we can do more with less.”

As part of its downsizing, Brooklyn Law is selling six of its nine residential properties in Brooklyn Heights. The portfolio, listed for $41.2 million, contains 110 apartment units. The school guarantees housing for first-year students and will still own and operate three student residences, including its main facility, the state-of-the-art Feil Hall.

“We don’t need all the spaces because we have fewer students,” Allard said. “It’s a very opportunistic time to put them on the market because the market for Brooklyn real estate is way up.”

At Albany Law, the $28.2 million operating budget is 9 percent smaller than it was six years ago. It enrolled 187 first-year J.D. students this year, down from 255 in 2008.

Dean Penelope Andrews said she is committed to directing financial resources to students—in particular, helping them find jobs. As a result, faculty engaged in research will have to “do it on a tighter budget.”

“We’re in belt-tightening mode,” Andrews said. “I think [faculty] are very supportive of that. Research and scholarship still continues to be the job of a professor. …They see that there are some sacrifices that will be required of them.”

Meanwhile, the highest-ranked schools continue to bring in new professors.

At NYU Law, former dean Ricky Revesz increased the size of its full-time faculty by 30 percent, from 83 to 108, in his 11 years as dean through May 2013. He also raised $550 million, a record amount for a law school dean, the school said.

Columbia Law has grown its full-time faculty by 20 percent since Schizer began his deanship in 2004 for a current total of 89. To do this, the school has lessened its reliance on tuition revenue, Schizer said. Its budget has benefitted from strong investment returns from Columbia University’s endowment, as well as alumni donations.

The law school received $16.3 million in new cash and pledges the year before Schizer took office. In 2011-12, it raised $51.3 million.

“That’s been the heart and soul of my effort for the last nine years,” Schizer said. “Basically the overall strategy for the school is to be able to increase the size of the faculty while hopefully easing down or at least not increasing the student body size, and that was the core goal of our fundraising, which has been extremely successful.”

In better times, law schools housed within universities were cash cows for their parent institutions, which take in anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of law schools’ annual revenue.

But some deans in New York indicated their universities were willing to negotiate this year. At Hofstra Law, the university’s president, Stuart Rabinowitz, authorized cuts to 1L class size. In return, the law school laid off some administrative staff and left positions unfilled.

Meanwhile, at least one school, Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, did not have to pay the yearly fee to its central administration.

“This year Touro College was very generous and did not assess a fee as a demonstration of support for the law school,” said dean Patricia Salkin. “The university president gave us some additional support to allow us to give additional scholarships.”

The situation is quite different for the state’s four independent law schools—Albany Law, Brooklyn Law, New York Law and City University of New York School of Law. All but Brooklyn Law reduced their 1L classes this year. Their self-reliance leaves them more sensitive to steep changes in class size from one year to the next.

‘A Three-Year Process’

For some schools, the real budget crunches may still be a year or two away because the last of the recession mega-classes are still on campus finishing up their J.D.’s. Their tuition dollars help offset the lesser revenue schools are getting out of their smaller first-year classes.

For example, CUNY Law, which has always been one of the smallest in New York state, enrolled 110 1L’s this year compared to 122 last year. Three years ago, it brought in 170. The school is still larger than it was before the recession, with 388 total students in 2008-09 and 430 this year.

“This is a three-year process,” Anderson said of setting the school’s budget. “Twelve fewer students are not going to make a huge dent in the budget because we have a big third-year class.”

With a shortage of potential law school applicants stateside, some schools are turning their recruitment efforts abroad. Non-J.D. programs—comprised primarily of LL.M.s, which tend to attract foreign students—are steadily expanding. Nationwide, law schools reported a 39 percent enrollment increase in such programs since 2005, according to the ABA. Nearly all LL.M. programs at the New York schools are bigger than they were before the recession.

In an effort to broaden its international reputation, University at Buffalo Law announced a two-year accelerated J.D. for foreign lawyers that will begin in 2014

Cardozo Law in 2011 started a two-week summer seminar for foreign-educated lawyers and law students interested in an overview of U.S. law and litigation. This summer it introduced a weeklong patent law institute for attorneys or students from any U.S. or foreign law school. Tuition for the two programs cost $2,000 to $3,000 per participant.

Recruiting Top Talent

It has become more challenging than ever for schools to recruit the kind of top talent that will hold their U.S. News rankings steady.

This year, the percentage of the lowest LSAT scorers applying to law schools fell only slightly, according to LSAC data. But the percentage of the highest-scoring applicants sank—particularly in the 170-174 range, where U.S. schools saw 25 percent fewer applicants since last year.

“The best and brightest college graduates are applying to law school in lower numbers, and that’s a concern because we want to attract those people to pursue legal careers,” said Schraver, the state bar president.

That has helped to create a buyer’s market for potential J.D.s with the highest test scores and GPAs. With entering class size falling at a much slower rate than application volume, it’s now easier for students to land at their top-choice school.

In interviews throughout the admissions season, some deans said they saw a higher rate of defection among admitted applicants with the highest LSAT scores and GPAs who’d already made their deposits: they bolted as higher-ranked schools courted them to fill their own seats.

“Not only are they getting off the wait list, they’re getting money from schools they wouldn’t have gotten into years ago,” said Henderson, the Indiana Law professor.

This may be because there is more scholarship money to be had. The nation’s law schools have more than doubled their scholarship aid to students in the past decade, according to the ABA. In 2008-09, they gave out $816 million. Last year, aid reached $1.1 billion.

Some New York deans said students are requesting better aid offers.

“This is a trend that started before the recession where you’d get students calling up the one they’d rather go to and say, ‘What can you do to match?’” said Schwab, the Cornell Law dean. “But it was take it or leave it. Now, it’s more of a negotiation.”

At least four schools in New York­—Cardozo, Hofstra, Fordham and New York Law—offered more aid this year than they have in years past. New York Law increased its budget for scholarships by 15 percent.

At Hofstra Law, the faculty association voted this spring to contribute $110,000 to the school’s scholarship fund to secure commitments from their best recruits through merit aid. Professors’ individual contributions are being deducted from their salaries this fall.

Hofstra Law professor Lawrence Kessler, who heads the faculty association, said professors realize this creates a “substantial unfairness.”

“What’s sad is that this trend toward merit scholarships means the lower-credentialed students are actually paying more for their educations than the students who can actually afford to pay more,” Kessler said. “The people who are more likely to get high-paying jobs are having an easier time getting merit aid.”

Despite all the publicity about law school problems, many deans said their prospective students have become wiser consumers. They have read and weighed the warnings but still want to enter the profession.

“Students who are coming to us now have thought about it long and hard,” said Diller, the Cardozo Law dean. “We have a really motivated student body. That has real advantages because they’re really determined to become lawyers.”

And some deans say that the declining applications and enrollment may help the schools in the long run.

“The decline in demand for legal education is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Simons, the St. John’s Law dean. “It’s going to lead to a much better balance between the demand for new lawyers and the supply.”