Duke, William & Mary See Rare Rise in Applicants

Everyone knows that law school applications are down – big time.  Schools across the country are reporting their lowest numbers in 30 years. Some 30,000 aspiring J.D.s applied for law school as of January 2013 – down roughly 20% from the same time in 2012 and a whopping 38% drop from 2010. A recent surge of last-minute applications  could improve these dismal statistics to a less dramatic 14% drop in applications from last year. Regardless, the vast majority of law schools still face dwindling demand.  However, a handful of schools are bucking the trend and welcoming a rising number of applications.

William & Mary Law School is one notable example.  This year the school received nearly 6,000 applications – its third-highest intake in the school’s history and a 5% increase over last year.  One out of every nine law school applicants put in for William & Mary. While this year’s pool has a lower median GPA and LSAT score than previous groups, Faye Shealy, Duke Law’s associate dean of admissions, argues that the incoming class is every bit as qualified as earlier cohorts.  “I’ve served as associate dean for law admissions at William & Mary since 1982. I was very pleased to see that many of this year’s applicants possess significant volunteer service, have served in the military, or have taken on leadership roles during their undergraduate years,” she explains.

Shealy attributes the uptick in applications to the school’s emphasis on turning out “citizen-lawyers,” a reputation for excellence and a price tag that’s slightly lower than many of its peers.  Given the economic battering law graduates can expect after graduation, William & Mary has also expanded its career services center and will add new staff later this year, she says.  While Shealy is optimistic that students will continue flocking to the school, she admits that “what the applicant population will be in coming years is a question mark.”

William & Mary is not alone. As of May 15, 2013, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) reported that some 11 schools have reported an increase in applications so far. Eight schools reported a 1% to 8% rise from last year.  Two witnessed a double-digit increase in applications, ranging from 10% to 19%, and one school boasted an increase of more than 50%. While the LSAC does not release the names of individual schools, a survey of press releases and news reports reveals several likely candidates.

As of February 2013, Duke University School of Law reported that applications were up 1 to 2% over the same time last year.  This tally did not include last-minute applications, which often surge right before the deadline.  Duke’s positive numbers reflect a variety of recent changes. The school introduced a skills-based winter session several years ago to prepare students for a ruthless job market.  They also added a dual degree program that offers students an opportunity earn both a master’s of law and the more traditional J.D. to attract more entrepreneurial types. Prospective students are likely also drawn to the 80% employment rate for 2012 Duke law graduates – even better, the 2012 J.D.s reportedly landed these jobs in “traditional legal professions” within nine months of graduation.

The University of Idaho College of Law also reported a staggering 9% increase from 2012 in fall admission applications. As of May 1, the school counted some 625 applications, up from 574 last year. Jeff Dodge, associate dean for students and administration, attributes the uptick to the school’s relatively low tuition and high employment prospects.

The University of Montana School of Law also boasted a slight increase amid a national trend of plummeting applications.  However, it hasn’t been a smooth upward trajectory.  The school’s applications previously dropped from 511 in 2010 to 325 in 2012.  The  woeful decline in 2012 may well have positioned the law school to see an increase in  2013.  The program is also a relative bargain in terms of law school tuition.  In-state students can expect to pay $11,000 per year for tuition.  Out-of-state students, on the other hand, shell out some $27,000 each year.

Amid the dire predictions about the waning significance of law school, a handful of institutions have cause for optimism.  But the verdict is still out on whether law schools will recoup the legions of applicants who applied at the height of the J.D. boom in 2010.