With job prospects at a 15-year low, fewer prospective students want to take on the debt.
Law school is no longer a sure bet. Would-be students are noticing.
The swell of students applying to law school -- despite growing debt and contracting job prospects -- has slowed. Here and nationally, prospective students have read the bad news, are asking tougher questions and, more often, are declining to apply. Applications for this fall to all four of the Twin Cities' law schools dropped.
Local admissions officers say that's not a bad thing: The students starting this fall are more "focused."
"Frankly, for many years, there were many students who went to law school because they didn't know what to do," said Cari Haaland, assistant dean of admissions for the University of St. Thomas School of Law. "Now, prospective students are thinking more critically about the decision."
There's evidence demand will shrink further. New data show a dramatic 18.7 percent decline in the number of students who took the Law School Admission Test this summer compared to the same time last year.
The job market for law school graduates is the worst it's been since the mid-1990s. Both the employment rate and the starting salary fell dramatically for the class of 2010, new reports by the National Association for Law Placement show. Meanwhile, debt rises. The average amount run up while at one of Minnesota's four schools now exceeds $90,000.
"In the aggregate, this class is going to have a harder time paying down its debt than classes before it," said James Leipold, the national association's executive director.
New law students say they're aware of the data, but are sure of their abilities and hopeful the market will have improved by the time they graduate. Several said that their goal has never been to nab a high-paying job at one of the big law firms, which perhaps have been hardest hit by the recession.
Still, "it is discouraging," said Cassie Benson, 25, a "1L" at William Mitchell College of Law. "Everything on the Internet is 'Don't go to law school.' But I have to be confident that this is right for me, and that there are lots of people and alumni who want to help."
Up, up, then down
During the recession, more people applied to law school, according to the Law School Admission Council. But then for fall 2011, the number of applications nationwide dropped 9.9 percent, according to the council, to the lowest total number in at least nine years. The number of people taking the LSAT also took a dive.
"It is possible that many people took the LSAT then to see if law school would be a reasonable way to wait out the recession," said Wendy Margolis, the council's spokeswoman. "But as news about the declining job market for law school graduates spread, fewer people did that."
On the whole, the four Minnesota law schools saw the same surge in applications, then a similar fall. Applications to the University of Minnesota, the best-ranked of the bunch, rose substantially through 2010-11, then dropped by about 8 percent for this fall, compared with last year. Applications to St. Thomas spiked in 2010, then dropped 29 percent for this fall.
Despite the dip in applicants, this year's first-year class at the U is the best yet in terms of LSAT scores and GPAs.
"The ones that do apply really want to be there," said Nick Wallace, the U's admissions director. "They're not just applying on a whim or as an escape route from the real world."
But the size of an applicant pool doesn't always translate to the size of an incoming class. Even with fewer applicants, St. Thomas enrolled three more students than it did last year. About 3,500 people applied to be a part of the University of Minnesota's class starting this fall, compared to 2,700 in 2006, yet the school enrolled fewer students than it did then.
On legal blogs, law school grads are calling on schools to pull back their numbers, so that their graduates don't glut the job market.
Minnesota schools say they're admitting only students they expect to succeed. "We haven't changed our standards," said Dave Jarzyna, assistant dean for marketing and recruitment at Hamline University School of Law. "We've never taken in a larger class to inflate our tuition revenue."
The schools are responding to prospective students' worry about the job market by publishing deeper post-school employment data, matching more students with mentors and presenting career services earlier in the process.
"We've always had a strong presence at admissions events," said Nancy Lochner, director of career services for Hamline Law School, "but there's maybe a more receptive audience."
This summer, before first-year classes even began, the University of St. Thomas offered a workshop for admitted students called, "What can I do with a law degree?" Students drew a lesser-known profession or area of law, quickly researched it and presented it to their classmates.
A tougher job market
About 87.6 percent of the class of 2010 had a job -- any job -- nine months after graduation, according to a June report by the National Association for Law Placement. That's a 15-year low.
"But you have to remember that students 15 years ago didn't have the same debt," Leipold said. "A lot of students have six-figure debt coming out of law school now ... so the picture is even bleaker."
Yet even that 15-year low "conceals a number of negative trends in the job market," the report says. Only 68.4 of graduates who reported their employment had a job for which they had to pass the bar exam -- "the lowest percentage ... ever measured." About 11 percent of those who reported being employed were working part time.
Big-firm jobs "just dried up," Leipold said. That also contributed to a 13 percent fall in the median pay for recent grads. The national median salary for those who reported working full time was $63,000 for the class of 2010, compared to $72,000 for the class before it.
In part because there are fewer large firms here, new graduates in Minnesota make less than the national median. Minnesota's median salary for the class of 2010 was $58,500.
Wallace said it's good for students to weigh those numbers: "In addition to students, they're also consumers, and they're making an amazingly important investment."
Terran Chambers, 21, is in the midst of the constant reading and outlining that is the life of a first-year law student: "It's a whole new level of exhaustion." She has long wanted to go to law school; "Erin Brockovich" was one of her favorite movies as a kid. "I would love to make big changes," she said. "I will have the power to do that with a law degree."
Although she was accepted at Harvard Law School, the Bemidji native picked the University of Minnesota, partly because the U offered her a scholarship.
"Harvard would have given me a lot of great opportunities, but the costs were so substantial and so out of reach," she said. "I didn't want to go to a school were I was so strapped with debt that I would be forced to work at a big firm in New York or L.A. because I couldn't afford to work anywhere else."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168