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Trends in Law School Apps: Top Still Top, Bottom Still Feedin'

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

When did the legal industry's decline begin, in 2009 or so? Though that was a long five years ago, the shockwave from the industry took a while to hit law schools -- we saw some decline in demand after the bloated Class of 2010 entered school, but the numbers didn't hit true historic lows until recently.

That's why now, when we're almost indisputably on a new path, it's especially interesting to see where students are looking, education-wise. Though LSATs are down, and applications are down, and class sizes are down, not every school is cutting back, nor does every school need to.

What are the trends in law school demand, as measured by applications? Who are the thrivers and survivors?

Going solo out of school? Spend more time developing practice skills and leave the marketing work for the experts.

Top's Still Top

The Short List Blog, from U.S. News & World Report, lists the Top 10 schools by number of applications received. The results are completely unsurprising:

  1. Georgetown (ranked No. 13 by U.S. News): 7,257
  2. University of Virginia (ranked No. 8): 6,048
  3. George Washington University (20): 6,005
  4. University of California - Berkeley (9): 5,885
  5. William and Mary (24): 5,849
  6. Columbia (4): 5,797
  7. New York University (6): 5,730
  8. University of California - Los Angeles (16): 5,562
  9. Harvard University (2): 5,485
  10. University of Pennsylvania (7): 5,283

Yowza! All highly ranked, most are state schools (which are presumably cheaper), and none have particularly egregious employment statistics, according to Above the Law. No shockers here.

Bottom line: Top's still top.

Bottom Feeders Gonna Feed

Thanks to Above the Law's digging, we also have the total application numbers for unranked, lesser institutions. Sadly (for their debt-ridden students), each school is getting applications in the thousands, including Cooley, which just cut one of its many 1L classes (the Ann Arbor franchise).

However, the numbers at unranked law schools do seem to be decreasing: The top spot last year went to Florida Coastal (5,283 applications). This year, Florida Coastal (3,085) is in second, behind Charlotte (3,342).

If there's anything I've learned from my dear alma mater's last two years, it's to not read too much into a surge in applications -- one year, you're thriving. The next? You're plummeting.

That being said, Elie Mystal at Above the Law pointed out an interesting stat earlier this week: The North Texas Dallas College of Law somehow got 600 applications for its inaugural class, 250 more than they expected.

Why are they so popular? Elie points to the price tag: $14,040 per year for in-state tuition. One year at a nearby private school, SMU Dedman, costs $48,796 per year. That may be a plausible explanation for the popularity, but it's not necessarily a good reason to choose the school -- it's cheap, but will a degree from a brand new school, with no ABA accreditation, be worth $45,000 in a few years? Will it be worth anything?

I know a handful of lawyers who have gone to non-ABA schools -- for the price, the night classes, or whatever reason. And these people are good lawyers. But they've also had a hell of a time in the job hunt and can't transport their state-accredited degrees outside of California's depressed market. A degree at clearance prices might seem like a steal, but you have to look at the long game.

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