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Law School Applications Take a Dip

Prospective students are down, but law schools are seeing higher-quality candidates.

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Law school may be losing some of its allure as a "safe harbor" in a recession-wracked world.

Because of a downturn in the job market, many college graduates turned to law school in 2009 and 2010 as a way to put off the job hunt. Law school applicants rose from 83,400 in 2008 to 87,900 in 2010. So far in 2011 there have been 66,876 applications, with several weeks remaining in the process—an 11.5 percent drop from this point a year ago, according to the Law School Admission Council.

With hiring down at law firms and a modest recovery in other job sectors, fewer students are applying to law school—which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

[Read law school application tips and stats.]

Nick Wallace, director of admissions at the University of Minnesota Law School, says total applicants are down after several years of increases. But the applications he's seeing seem to be from students who truly want to attend law school.

"It's hard to increase every year," he said. "But I would say the caliber of our applicants has improved over the past few years. The vast majority of our applicants are quite qualified and exceptional. We've seen a lot of great, focused applications."

Ann Levine, a former law school admissions officer who now advises prospective law school students, says much of the decrease can be attributed to better informed students and the market correcting itself after years of rising applications.

"There's been a lot of press about going to a top-ranked school," she says. "A lot of people who know they won't be competitive for some of the top schools aren't applying anymore."

[See how Biglaw is changing its hiring techniques.]

Levine said more schools are being honest with prospective students about the commitment law school takes and the difficulties of finding a job after graduation. In July 2009, University of Miami Law School sent a letter to accepted students offering to defer enrollment. Dean Trish White warned students about attending law school without having a passion for the field.

"Perhaps many of you are looking to law school as a safe harbor in which you can wait out the current economic storm. If this describes your motivation for going to law school I urge you to think hard about your plans," White wrote. "It is very difficult to predict what the employment landscape for young lawyers will be in May 2012 and thereafter."

Alissa Leonard, admissions director at Boston University Law School, where applications are also down, says more recent graduates are taking part-time work or traveling. "Some are having difficulty finding their place in the academy," she says. But the bulk of the university's 7,000 applicants have a law degree in mind. "You can see they've had law school in their sights for a really long time."

Levine says there are still plenty of applicants to go around. "In the end, it's better that people who really want to go to law school are going to apply," she said. "People always want to enter the legal profession."

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