State law school applications see double-digit decline -- Gazette.Net


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George Mason University, along with several other state schools offering law degrees, has not been able to buck a national trend of the double-digit drops in student applications.

“It’s the economy,” said George Mason’s Law school Dean, Daniel Polsby. “The whole industry is seeing the same thing... It’s been declining since 2010.

“There are two theories out there. One is [there has been] a dramatic change in the legal profession, which doesn’t need as many lawyers. The second is the economy.”

Polsby said if the economy is the reason, law school application numbers might rebound as the economic decline is seen as temporary.

As of March 22, nearly 50,000 would-be law students have submitted 342,993 applications. The total number of applicants is down 17 percent, while the total number of applications is down 21 percent compared to 2012, according to the Law School Admissions Council. A recent New York Times article reported U.S. law schools are facing a 30-year lull in applications, which may be the result of increases in tuition rates, rising student debt levels and a declining job market.

From 2009 to 2012, George Mason’s School of Law saw a 16.28 percent decline in applications. At the same time, however, the grade point averages of students accepted into Mason’s law school has continued to increase with the median GPA of applicants at 3.47 in 2009 and 3.72 in 2012. Similarly, Mason has issued acceptance letters to about 1,300 students the last two years. Because many law schools set their application deadlines in March, complete data for this year’s applications is not yet available. However, Mason school officials said the decline could be more than twice as high (approaching 50 percent) as seen in previous years.

Of the impacts a smaller pool of applicants could have on Mason’s School of Law, Polsby said, “The law program will be smaller than it has been in the past. In some ways, that might be helpful to the students... But we’re not changing our standards. We’re not changing anything we do.”

Not all Virginia schools have seen a downward trend in applicants. Both the College of William and Mary’s and the University of Virginia’s law programs saw an increase in applicants during the past few years.

“I am pleased that we can report a 4 percent increase in applications as of March 26,” William & Mary’s Associate Dean for Admission Faye Shealy said. “I think our applicants are seeking quality legal education that can best prepare them for careers as lawyers in the public and private sectors.”

Shealy did not comment on why William & Mary was out performing its in-state neighbors. Many of the nation’s top ranked law schools also enjoyed increases in application numbers.

Of the schools ranked in the top five of U.S. News and World Report’s annual “2014 Best Law Schools” list, all reported a significant and steady increase in applications except for Yale University (ranked No. 1) and Stanford University (tied for No. 2 with Harvard University), which saw declines in application numbers in 2010. Columbia University and the University of Chicago rounded out the top five law schools, having tied for the fourth-place ranking.

“What we saw at the tail end of the housing bubble [was] applications increased substantially,” said University of Virginia Law School Dean Paul G. Mahoney. “That continued to increase until [2010], which was the peak...That’s not an unusual pattern in a recession. It’s hard to see whether we’re on a normal path now or not.”

University of Virginia tied for seventh with University of Pennsylvania in the ranking and was the highest ranked Virginia school.

Like George Mason’s Law School dean, Mahoney said it is difficult to forecast the impact of unsteady application numbers on the students and law program. Both program leaders said they are aiming for stability.

Some law school leaders, however, are predicting declines in enrollment and even school closures occurring around the corner.

University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter operates a blog, “Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports,” which includes entries tracking exponential increases in law student debt and the low-application epidemic. Among Leiter’s observations and predictions is that as many as 10 law schools could close during the next ten years, and classroom sizes will shrink. Northwestern’s School of Law announced in March plans to reduce its student size by 10 percent.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com