Economically speaking Applications flood law schools

 by John Foren

Legal News
Applications are skyrocketing to Michigan law schools and, yes, you can probably thank the economy for it, experts say. 
The Michigan State University College of Law reports that applications are running about 25 percent ahead of last year, and the Thomas M. Cooley and University of Michigan law schools say they also are seeing large increases. 
“It was a shocking surprise,” Sarah Zearfoss, assistant dean and admissions director at the U-M law school, said with a laugh. 
Her staff expects to be at “full throttle” until April 30, when those accepted have to make their final decisions on attending U-M.  
Applications nationally are up about 7.5 percent, according to the Pennsylvania-based Law School Admission Council, which administers the Law School Admission Test. Some universities, such as Cornell, have reported increases by as much as 50 percent. 
What’s more, students are applying to more schools, a sign of how anxious they are. Many apparently don’t see themselves getting a job any time soon with their undergrad degrees and figure now’s as good a time as any for law school. 
“We don’t have any real way of knowing why, but we do think the economy is a key influence,” said Wendy Margolis, the council’s communications director. 
“People want to sit out the economy during bad times.” 
Zearfoss said the avalanche started in the fall but she assumed it was due to a number of “eager beavers” and it would slow down. It hasn’t happened, though. 
U-M received roughly 6,500 applications by the Feb. 15 deadline, compared to about 5,500 last year. The numbers have been fairly flat since the last big spike, which was in 2002, she said. 
About 1,000 of the applicants will be accepted and perhaps one-third will actually attend the school. 
The fall applicants were an early indicator of how the economy is affecting law schools. Faced with deciding between taking a post-graduate break or job, or immediately taking law classes, many students hedged their bets and took the latter option, Zearfoss said. 
Applicants sometimes prefer to take a break after getting their undergrad degrees or opt for real-world experience before the rigors of law school. With no guarantees of finding work, though, they were less likely to risk an extended and costly break, Zearfoss said. 
She figures in normal times two-thirds of applicants take some time off before heading to law school, but now it’s perhaps half or less. 
There’s generally an inverse relationship between the economy and interest in the law, says Chuck Roboski, dean of admissions at the MSU law school and head of a Midwestern alliance of law school admissions officers.  In bad times, students are more likely to head for law school and other graduate programs. 
Applications at MSU increased 35 percent last year, to 2,736. With this year’s April 30 deadline approaching, the law school projects at least 3,300 applications, Roboski said. That’s far higher than most increases throughout the country, he noted. 
While many of his colleagues point to the economy, Roboski thinks there’s more to it.  
He notes that the media and entertainment worlds can have a big impact. If a hot new television show focuses on lawyers, law school seems more attractive and applications may rise.  
Plus, he believes MSU is reaping the benefits of building its name recognition after years of being identified by its old affiliation with the Detroit College of Law.  
Robinski notes that the number of actual law school applicants in the Midwest is down about 3 percent over last year, while it’s up nationally by the same amount. 
While that’s true, applications in the region increased 8 percent, according to the Law School Admission Council’s Margolis. That means the average applicant in this region applied to more than 8 schools. 
About two-thirds of accredited law schools are seeing application increases, she said.  
It also was a record year for the LSAT, Margolis said. More than 170,000 tests were administered nationwide from last June to February, a 13 percent jump. 
Lack of jobs may simply be giving more people time to study and take the exam, Margolis said. 
The Wayne State University Law School hasn’t seen the kind of jump that the others have; overall applications were slightly down, but the economy may have affected that, too, said Ericka Jackson, the school’s assistant dean for admissions. 
Applications from Michigan residents were up a little, Jackson said, but nonresidents were not as likely to apply there.  
She believes that’s because in a tight economy students from outside Michigan think they’ll have less chance of landing a summer internship with a Detroit-area firm. Students may feel that, with limited spots, firms will more likely favor native Michiganians. 
Cooley Law School says it is seeing a big boost in applications from Michigan students. In-state applicants were up 17 percent in March, which was a record-breaking month for applications at Cooley overall, according to a school news release. 
Applications for the fall class are 9 percent higher than last year, school officials say. 
Cooley attributes the jump to its flexible scheduling at four campuses, among other factors. 
Officials at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law said it was too early to project admission trends for the fall class. The school’s application deadline is the middle of this month.