Law schools across the nation have experienced a decline in applicants amid a recession-weary legal job market, though San Diego institutions report they have been somewhat insulated from the trend.
The Law School Admission Council, in data that was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in March, tallies that the number of law school applicants nationwide is down 11.5 percent so far this year. The 66,876 applicants for Fall 2011 is the lowest number of applicants since 2001.
Representatives for San Diego-based law schools say the decline has been less noticeable locally. They attribute the difference to the kind of student who pursues a law degree here.
“California Western seeks students who share our view on the law as a helping profession. Many of our graduates go on to work in public agencies, nonprofits and small- to mid-size law firms,” said Pam Hardy, spokeswoman for California Western School of Law. “That message resonates with prospective students.”
California Western had seen a small decline in applicants, Hardy said, though Fall 2010’s incoming class was larger than that in 2009. The law school, which admits students in the fall and the spring, currently has 929 part-time and full-time law school students, Hardy said.
At University of San Diego School of Law, 331 students were admitted in 2010 from a pool of 5,201 applicants, according to Cara Mitnick, the school’s assistant dean for career services. By comparison, USD’s law school enrolled 321 students from 4,404 applicants in 2009.
“As you can see, our enrollment figures didn’t change significantly” in those years, Mitnick said.
USD students aren’t necessarily deterred by job cuts in big law firms. “Reflecting the San Diego legal market, our students have always, and continue to be employed primarily in small and medium law firms as well as in government agencies,” said Mitnik, noting that a smaller number of students use their legal educations for careers in contracts management, compliance and consulting.
Beth Kransberger, associate dean for student affairs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, said enrollment there is at 975 students.
“Our Fall 2010 was up 17 percent, and our Spring 2010 was up 31 percent. We’re running a little bit differently to national trends,” said Kransberger, noting that some of that increase can be attributed to the school’s new eight-story building in downtown San Diego.
“We’re not a school that has been relying on the big firms coming on campus to recruit. We’re a little outside the norm,” Kransberger said.
“Big firms represent only 10 percent of the legal profession. What we find are the solo, small and medium firms -- those that weren’t relying on large corporate clients -- have had some reliability. There are still real estate transactions, and there are still births and deaths, so there’s still a need for estate planning.”
The downturn in the economy has had a way of distilling the pool of law school applicants down to those who see a law degree as an opportunity to serve their community, said Kransberger.
“I still talk to folks very seriously about the versatility of a law degree,” she said. “You have to be clear about why you are doing this. You can’t do it to please someone else. This is a professional with a lot of versatility. But this is not for those who see it as an easy way to get rich quick.”
At the same time, law schools are compelled to make the high cost of tuition worthwhile for their students. The American Bar Association has estimated that the average law student graduates with upwards of $100,000 in student loan debt.
“Given that it’s a time of economic stress, I think right now it’s particularly important that schools be thoughtful in what they’re doing to create pathways into the profession,” said Kransberger.
“We have to be very thoughtful about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We have to give students more bang for their buck, while educating lawyers for the global society in three short years.”
McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance writer.