Law schools, firms adapt as applicants dwindle

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When McGeorge School of Law this month said it would reduce the size of its staff and student body by 40 percent, it acknowledged a harsh reality for law schools: Demand for their diplomas has dropped.

Across the country, the number of law school applicants has dwindled along with the job prospects for newly minted lawyers. With fewer people consulting attorneys for routine legal matters and demand from business clients dropping over the recession, many law firms reduced hiring and let experienced lawyers go.

That contraction, in turn, discouraged prospective students from choosing to go to law school, whose steep price tag often means borrowing more than $100,000.

“It's a ripple effect,” said Kevin O'Brien, managing partner of Downey Brand, a Sacramento law firm that last month laid off nearly a dozen administrative and support staff.

As of early July, 58,000 people nationwide applied to enter law school in the fall, according to the Law School Admission Council. At the same point in 2010, more than 87,000 students submitted applications. The way it's shaping up, 2013 could be the first year in at least three decades that fewer than 60,000 people apply to law schools.

McGeorge, in Sacramento, Calif., said it would scale back enrollment to 600 students over the next three years. In fall 2010, McGeorge had 1,036 students. The size of the staff will be similarly reduced, the school said.

Francis J. Mootz III, McGeorge's dean, said the cuts are “in response to an unprecedented drop in applications to law schools across the country.”

Unlike McGeorge and some other law schools, the University of California-Davis doesn't intend to allow its student body to shrink or to cut jobs, said Kevin Johnson, the law school's dean. He said enough qualified applicants are still applying to fill the classrooms.

“The people who are dropping out of our pool are those with the lower GPAs and the lower LSAT scores,” he said. “They're being more realistic about their chances of getting admitted.”

“I think when the jobs come back, we'll see the students coming back.”

The job market is a significant concern for law students. Nationally, the American Bar Association reports that 56 percent of law school graduates had full-time, long-term jobs nine months after graduation.

Those numbers have given some potential students pause, considering the steep price of that JD degree. The annual in-state tuition at McGeorge, for example, is $43,045 for the full-time program, according to the 2013 numbers from U.S. News & World Report.

Amanda Massimini, a rising third-year McGeorge student, is working her second internship in a California public defender's office, and she thinks the experience will set her apart.

“They get hundreds of applications for a handful of positions,” she said. “They're looking for people they don't have to train.”

Like many students, Massimini has used scholarships to reduce her borrowing. She said going into public service will allow her to take advantage of a debt-forgiveness program that wipes the slate clean after 10 years of work. She owes $90,000, with a year of law school remaining.

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