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Law school applications drop over last 2 years

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Applications to three of the four law schools in the state are in free fall as prospective students think twice about taking on mountains of debt at a time when job prospects are dim.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law, I.U. Robert H. McKinney School of Law and Notre Dame Law School have seen applications plunge as much as 31 percent in the past two years.

Only Valparaiso University Law School has escaped the downdraft since the schools’ heyday three years ago.

law-school-chart.jpgThe trend is so abrupt that Gary Roberts, dean of the I.U. McKinney School of Law, openly frets about his options.

“If the falloff is too great, we may have to consider lowering the admissions standards just to be financially viable,” he said.

Law schools are not accustomed to scarcity. Applications swelled as students sought refuge from the recession, peaking in 2010, but as law firms adjusted to the economy by cutting back on hiring, more and more potential students got cold feet and backed away.

As of mid-March, law schools across the nation had received 49,603 applications, down 17 percent and 30 percent, respectively, from the same time in the prior two years, according to the Law School Admission Council in Newtown, Pa.

In Indiana, applications have dipped most at the I.U. Maurer School of Law – 31.5 percent from 2010, to 2,358 last year.

• The Notre Dame Law School is down 28.1 percent, to 2,888.

• The I.U. McKinney School of Law has fallen 27.1 percent, to 1,385.

• Valparaiso is down only five applications, to 1,467.

Experiences like those of Teresha Twyman and Kelsey Raves, both of whom graduate from I.U. McKinney School of Law in May, spark fear in would-be students.

Twyman took the bar exam in February and is set to graduate next month. But she has no job prospects and a mound of debt approaching six figures.

She started law school four years ago just as the legal job market began to dry up.

Now Twyman and Raves, 25, of Pittsburgh, are stuck with few options.

“I’m open to whatever I can find,” Raves said. “I’ve been submitting applications for jobs that don’t start until August, but I haven’t found anything yet.”

Before the recession, law school students often parlayed summer associate work into full-time gigs after graduating.

Not anymore. The percentage of interviews resulting in summer associate offers fell slightly in 2012, to 44 percent, according to data from NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement. The nadir for summer associate hiring remains 2009, when just 36 percent of interviews resulted in offers.

The declines translate to a steep loss in revenue for the universities.

Cutting class sizes to maintain stricter admissions standards translates to lower revenue. But accepting students that otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut dilutes those admissions benchmarks.

“There’s no question that we can bring in as many [students] as we want, but we want to retain the quality of student,” Roberts said.

Last year’s application number was the lowest at Notre Dame in six years, Dean Nell Jessup Newton said. Yet the university has maintained its first-year class size at about 180 students due to its intense selectivity and high quality of applicants.

“If I had to bring in 400 students, I think it could be affecting us more,” she said.

It’s harder to get a sense of how the drop might be affecting I.U. Maurer School of Law. Interim Dean Hannah L. Buxbaum offered her only comment via email: “We’ve had significant spikes in applications recently, particularly in the early 2000s and again around 2010, and we’re seeing our application volume return to more normal historical levels,” she wrote.

Indiana Tech presses ahead

Indiana Tech is pressing forward with the opening of its law school despite the declining interest in a legal degree.

The school in Fort Wayne will welcome its first class of law students this fall at its flagship Allen County campus during one of the worst times imaginable.

Indiana Tech launched its plans to build a law school before the bottom fell out. But the law school’s new dean, Peter Alexander, remains undeterred. With $16 million spent on a new building, it’s hard to abandon ship now, he argued.

“You go back three, 3-1/2 years, we were still OK in terms of admission,” Alexander said. “It wasn’t until last year that we saw a significant downturn and then the bottom fell out this year.”

He’s banking on an unusual curriculum that combines classroom and practical education to draw students. With commitments from more than 100 entities around the state, Alexander said, third-year students will have opportunity to embark on a 40-hour externship with a law firm or judicial office.

He’s targeting 100 students for the first-year class, though he admits that might not be attainable.

“Now that we’ve seen the marketplace,” Alexander said, “our board of trustees is committed to opening the law school with whatever number we have.”•

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