SAN FRANCISCO — Offering a free J.D. seems to be paying off for Irvine’s fledgling law school. The number of applications coming in has about doubled in the last two weeks, to more than 1,000, said Victoria Ortiz, the director of admissions.
Elsewhere in California, some law schools are seeing more applications than they did at the same time last year, and some fewer. School officials are reluctant to tie those results just yet to the conventional wisdom that a bad economy sends people flocking to professional schools, though: They say the outlook can fluctuate even during an application season.
News of UC-Irvine School of Law’s plan to foot the bill for all three years of its 60-student inaugural class might have had something to do with its recent influx, officials at the school say. A number of stories about the full-tuition scholarships for fall 2009 students began coming out last October, but an Associated Press story that ran nationally this month seemed to prompt “a huge uptick in inquiries, e-mails and applications,” Ortiz said.
The second batch of offer letters went out this week. “We are obviously going to admit more than 60 people,” she said. “It’s inconceivable that the first 60 that are admitted are going to come.” The trick, she added, is to neither over-admit nor under-admit. “If anything keeps me awake at night, it’s that.” The school is expecting more applications to roll in by its March 1 deadline.
Given all that a new school has stacked against it — Irvine has no ABA accreditation and no alumni network — 1,000 is a good number of applications, said Hastings College of the Law Director of Admissions Greg Canada. “The telling thing will be next year when they don’t have that enticement of a free ride,” Canada said.
Although the count isn’t over yet — like Irvine, some schools continue to accept applications until March 1 — other law schools say that they have watched application numbers rise compared to last year. UC-Berkeley School of Law counted 6,676 applications as of Tuesday, about 7 percent more than it had gotten by the same date last year. If that trend holds, this would be the second year in a row the school has logged an increase in applications, following three years of consecutive drops that began in 2005. “We typically see an uptick in applications during a down economy,” spokeswoman Susan Gluss said. In 2002, following the dot-com bust, applications spiked by 22 percent, according to the school.
Golden Gate University School of Law also reports a 7 percent rise in applications — 1,401 applications so far, compared to 1,308 at the same time last year — an increase Dean Alan Ramo said is slightly greater than in past years. Prospective students’ interest in the school’s honors lawyering program has jumped by 17 percent in the same period, Ramo noted. That program, open to 50 students each year, combines classroom study with a fall semester in a workplace such as a law firm or nonprofit, followed by more classroom and clinical time. “Perhaps students are attracted by the idea that they can get into the workplace early,” he said.
Stanford Law School declined to provide specific numbers, but a spokeswoman said that the school typically receives 4,000 applications each year. “That number doesn’t fluctuate very much, and since we accept only a small fraction of those applications, we aren’t really affected by economic shifts year to year,” Tayla Klein said in an e-mail. But, she added, “Given the current economic environment, we are experiencing a bit of a spike in applications.”
UC-Davis School of Law saw a tiny applications increase of 1 percent last year, but that number may dip a little this year, said Sharon Pinkney, assistant dean for admission and enrollment. However, she is waiting until the school’s Feb. 1 application deadline to arrive at any firm conclusions: She notes that the school’s total was running at a loss until the final week of the process last year.
At University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, Adam Barrett, assistant dean of enrollment management, said that the number of applications as of Jan. 24 was down 8 percent compared to the same time last year. McGeorge typically collects 3,200 to 3,500 applications for its day and evening programs.
There seems to be a misperception among potential students, Barrett noted, that the credit crunch has dried up student financial aid. The school has held talks to let students know that much of the funding available is actually guaranteed by the federal government. At Hastings, the numbers hit about 4,000 this month, a 3.7 percent increase over last January, said Canada, the director of admissions. He added that he expects to collect about 6,000 applications this year for the school’s 420 spots.
But, he added, it’s too soon to tell whether the downturn in the economy is pushing the numbers up. He’s heard from the Law School Admission Council that the number of applicants as of Jan. 23 was down by a bit more than 2 percent nationwide from 2008, while the number of applications was up by about that amount.
“We’ve made a note that there are fewer applicants out there, which makes it even more competitive for schools,” Canada said.
Ortiz has been busy working on that. She and her staff at UC-Irvine’s law school have been traveling to various corners of the country to recruit students at college fairs in places like New England, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Michigan and Minnesota. Ortiz has also met with pre-law advisers and with college clubs and societies. When candidates ask about job prospects, Ortiz points out the 70 or so employers that have pledged to at least interview on the law school’s campus, including firms like Bingham McCutchen; Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis; Arnold & Porter; Irell & Manella; Morrison & Foerster and O’Melveny & Myers.
Charles Cannon, the Irvine law school’s assistant dean of development, said it is past the halfway mark in raising the $6 million it will need for scholarships to cover the inaugural class’ three years. The UC Regents set the cost, but the school is assuming just over $34,000 a year for California residents, and another $10,000 for out-of-state students, Cannon said.
If there is a spot that the economic downturn has definitively shown itself, it would be in fundraising.
Cannon said that a number of law firms and businesses have postponed the decision to donate or scaled back the amount they’d consider. There are at least four law firms that are still considering a scholarship gift worth between $30,000 and $100,000, he said.
Cannon remains cautiously optimistic because past experience has shown him that even in the toughest of economic times, there seem to be donors who step up because they realize that investment in the future requires a suspension of the panic and anxiety gripping organizations and individuals in recent months. “It’s almost a form of cultural leadership that reminds us that we haven’t all stopped eating and going to work.”