Fewer law school applicants translates to smaller entering classes at most Texas law schools this year.

“What each of the schools in Texas and nationally has to ask is whether you keep the size of the school as large as you have in the past and reduce the quality of the student body,” says Raymond T. Nimmer, dean of the University of Houston Law Center. “We decided to reduce the size of the class,” he says.

Texas Lawyer asked each of Texas’ nine American Bar Association-accredited law schools — of which four are public and five are private schools — for information on the size of theirapplicant pools, enrollment and tuition for the 2012-2013 and 2011-2012 school years. Eight of the schools provided information. The University of Texas School of Law in Austin has the latest start date of the law schools, Aug. 29, and could not provide data, other than tuition and fees information, before presstime on Aug. 30.

For the most part, Texas law schools are in line with a national trend: declining applicant pools, smaller entering classes and higher tuition. [See the chart: Texas Law School 2012/2013 Stats.]

Applications

But two Texas schools — St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio and Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock — did have more applicants for the 2012-2013 entering class compared to 2011-2012, with increases of 3.4 percent and 18.7 percent, respectively.

“I think that the economic boom in South Texas with the Eagle Ford Shale has situated San Antonio in a very, very, fortuitous position,” says St. Mary’s Law Dean Charles E. Cantú. “I kind of think that San Antonio is the gateway to South Texas. I think that may have had some influence in the number of our applicants.”

He says publicity about the school’s award-winning advocacy and clinic programs and job placement success also likely contributed to the increased interest in the law school.

Texas Tech Law School has been a good value for several years for its combination of more-affordable tuition, graduating students’ smaller debt load, and high bar passage rate and job placement numbers, Dean Darby Dickerson writes in an email about the rise in applicants. “More students than in the past are paying attention to these factors,” she writes.

Success in national advocacy competitions and alumni’s increased efforts to encourage people to apply also have contributed to the larger applicant pool, she writes.

Class Size

Only one of the schools, Texas Wesleyan School of Law in Fort Worth, has a larger 2012-2013 entering class than it did for 2011-2012. The school’s combined full-time and part-time entering class is 10 percent bigger than it was a year ago.

Although the number of applicants was down 5.6 percent year-to-year, Dean Frederic White says the students admitted meet the same criteria as students entering a year ago.

“We’re concerned about standards; we can’t take just anybody,” White says.

A high attrition rate or students flunking the bar exam would not be a good trade for a larger class, he says.

Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas enjoyed year-to-year increases in its applicant pool until this year, when it saw the largest drop of the Texas schools, with 16.1 percent fewer applicants for 2012-2013 than 2011-2012.

“We were well ahead of where the national trend was the last two years,” says law Dean John B. Attanasio. “This year it caught up with us.”

The school has a smaller entering class, driven by the decreased size of the applicant pool, he says.

“SMU has very high standards, and so we’re going to do what we can to retain those standards,” Attanasio says.

Tuition and Fees

Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston has the lowest tuition and fees among the Lone Star State’s law schools. Tuition and fees are $16,446 for in-state residents, a $184 (1.1 percent) fee increase from the tuition and fees for 2011-2012.

“We’re always looking at recommending increases, but we decided deliberately not to ask for a tuition increase this year, due to market forces, to wait and see where we were after this year,” says law Dean Dannye R. Holley.

The school’s applicant pool shrank only 2.5 percent from the previous year.

A question facing all law schools is whether the decreasing applicant pool signifies a long-term shift, Holley says. “Usually when the economy is bad, most folks try to apply to law school. That was not the case this year and last year,” he says.

While Baylor University School of Law’s published tuition and fees of $46,240 are the highest among Texas’ schools, that number doesn’t tell the whole story about the cost of a Baylor Law degree, says Bradley J.B. Toben, dean of the Waco law school. Due to scholarships, on average, any student enrolled in the law school is paying between 40 percent and 50 percent of the tuition, Toben says. The school’s tuition rose 6.5 percent from last year’s.

Baylor Law’s applicant pool declined 12.3 percent compared to the 2011-2012 pool, but that follows two years of increasing numbers of applicants, he says.

“Legal education has been taking a beating in the media and, along with the effects of the recession, those that otherwise might become part of the applicant pool are looking at other opportunities,” he says.

South Texas College of Law in Houston tries to keep its annual tuition increases under 3 percent, says Donald J. Guter, dean and president of the law school.

This year the school’s tuition and fees increased 2.9 percent, to $27,000, compared to 2011-2012.

STCL had fewer applicants for the 2012-2013 entering class than it did the previous year. Guter says the law school’s applicant pool had been rising year-over-year until it declined for each of the past two years.

Echoing Nimmer and Attanasio, Guter says a smaller applicant pool usually means a school has to make a choice between decreasing the class size or accepting students with different credentials, such as lower LSAT scores or undergraduate GPAs.

Notes Guter, “So if you keep the credentials the same, you’re probably going to have a smaller class, and that’s what we chose to do.”