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More schools, fewer students

As applications decline, law schools wonder what the future holds

The laws of supply and demand may apply to legal education after all.

Eight years ago, over 100,000 students applied to law school nationally, but this year, in the face of relentlessly downbeat news about the employment prospects for lawyers, applications have cratered. Only about 67,000 applicants are expected — but the number of accredited law schools is higher than ever.

Applications are also down at most of North Carolina’s law schools, but optimism remains in endless supply — at least at the schools even willing to talk about it.

Wake Forest University is one of the very few schools in the country with good reason for cheer. Applications to its law school are up 29 percent, one of the highest increases in the country, something assistant dean for admissions and financial aid Jay Shively credits to new strategies for recruiting high-achieving students. But Shively knows Wake Forest is the exception.

“I think everybody’s really feeling it this year, there’s a lot of [schools] who are light on deposits and overextended on scholarships,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out whether this is the new normal. A lot of talk has been around what’s causing it, but there needs to be discussions systemically about what’s going to change. What I see mostly is people just following the same patterns and hoping it’s going to work out.”

At Duke University, dean of admissions Bill Hoye said applications are down 16 percent. But that still meant there were about 25 applicants for every seat. At the University of North Carolina, dean of admissions Michael States said that applications were down only 8 percent and that the composition of the incoming class would not change much.

The deans disagreed whether the slump was a temporary blip or the “new normal.” But others think the situation may actually get worse before getting better.

“There’s no reason to believe that the decline in law school applications is at an end. I don’t see what will turn this around in the short term. If the decline continues, some schools will go out of business,” said Brian Tamahana, professor of law at Washington University of St. Louis and author of the upcoming book “Failing Law Schools.”

Rational response

The decline of applicants would seem to be a rational response to the fact that the number of new lawyers produced each year far outstrips the number of jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that there will be 212,000 job openings for lawyers between 2010 and 2020, with 73,600 new jobs created and 138,400 opening due to replacement. That’s slightly less than half the number of law school graduates projected during that period, based on current trends.

According to ABA data about the 2011 class, the long-term employment rate for graduates is abysmal. Rates among North Carolina schools, after excluding the vague non-legal category of “business and industry,” range from a still-modest 83.6 percent at Duke to 43.5 percent at North Carolina Central University.

Still, some local deans remain upbeat.

Alan Woodlief, associate dean for admissions at Elon University, said applications were slightly up from last year, and that academic qualifications would be “on par with or perhaps slightly stronger than last year.” He attributes that to Elon obtaining full ABA accreditation and more students learning about the new school.

Campbell University dean of admissions Dexter Smith said his law school’s applications were down 10 to 15 percent. He described the current crop of applicants as “more focused.”

Application rates are only part of the story, of course. Schools also need to worry about their “yield,” the number of accepted students who enroll. Experts say that students are now more likely to turn down offers unless they get into a first choice school or receive attractive scholarship offers, or both. Several local deans said they expect their yields to be soft this year as well.

Admissions officers at North Carolina Central declined to comment. Charlotte School of Law officials would only say that admissions were up from the previous year, but declined to comment on their number of applications, acceptance rates, or yield.

Charlotte is the only for-profit law school in North Carolina. It received negative publicity in 2010 when it was sued by a former student who claimed the school deceptively encouraged him to take out loans he was unable to pay.

‘De facto open admission’

Tamahana says that some lower-tier schools will have to respond to the lack of strong candidates by watering down admissions standards to unprecedented levels.

“Over one-fourth of law schools nationwide accepted close to 50 percent, or more, of their applicants in 2009. This year, there will be many law schools that will accept two-thirds, or even 75 percent of their applicants. At some point, you’re basically de facto open admission,” he said.

“If law schools are forced to open admission, it will force serious questions about the soundness of their operation.”

For the incoming class of 2010, Charlotte had the highest acceptance rate in North Carolina, taking 60 percent of applicants.

Many experts predict that some schools, especially the ones already at the bottom of the pecking order for applicants, will have to shutter their doors.

“My best guess, which is an educated guess, is that some of these lower tier schools are going to close. I don’t know whether it will be in the next year or anything, but I would be very surprised if there were as many ABA-accredited schools a decade from now as there are now,” said Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado and author of a popular blog about the challenges facing law schools.

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