Fewer applications mean smaller classes, more experiential learning at CT law schools

The recession has not been kind to law schools. The triple threat of rapidly rising tuition, crippling student debt and shrinking prospects of landing a high-paying job right away have resulted in a 30-year national low in law school applications.

Connecticut’s law schools have not been immune to this dramatic shift and have responded by shrinking the class size and focusing more on career preparation.

“Interest has been down and is still down in attending law school,” said Ellen Rutt, associate dean for enrollment management at the UConn School of Law.

Nationally, the number of law school applicants dropped by 17 percent this year, following a 13.5 percent drop in 2012. And it looks like a 12.3 percent drop is coming this year, though final figures are not in yet, said Wendy Margolis, spokeswoman for the Law School Admission Council.

At the height of law schools’ popularity in 2004, there were 100,600 applicants nationally. This year there were 59,426, she said.

After years of rapidly rising tuition costs and a contraction in the number of $160,000-a-year jobs for first-year associates, law schools have come under increasing scrutiny. Bloggers have chronicled graduates unable to find jobs and staggering under massive debt, and the media has questioned practices designed to puff up law school rankings.

To increase transparency, the American Bar Association now requires law schools to publish detailed statistics on their website for prospective students, including what percent of students get jobs using their law degrees nine months after graduating.

Rutt, who has been out recruiting for UConn’s law school, said she still gets resistance from college seniors, but has started to see more interest from first-year students.

Connecticut’s three law schools – Quinnipiac, UConn and Yale – have responded to the downturn variously. Both UConn and Quinnipiac have dropped their class size to accommodate the shift. Quinnipiac, which had a huge drop in applications this year, reduced its class size from 127 to 84 in order to maintain the school’s selectivity, said Ed Wilkes, associate vice president and dean of law admissions at Quinnipiac.

“Quality is most important thing,” Wilkes said.

UConn has put more of a focus on getting students career-ready. This year, UConn adopted a new requirement for students to complete a clinic or externship in order to graduate.

“It’s an intensive, carefully supervised, real lawyering experience before graduating from law school,” said Paul Chill, recently appointed as the school’s first associate dean for clinical and experiential education. He said only 15 or 16 law schools in the country have such a requirement.

“That’s a wonderful requirement,” Rutt said. “I think that it helps to present even greater opportunities to students. I also think it might help them find a practice area they didn’t even know anything about.”

Quinnipiac and Yale say they have put a focus on experiential and clinical learning for years.

Yale spokeswoman Jan Conroy said Yale has not made any major changes in response to the national dip in applications.

“We’re a very small school and, off the top of my head, I don’t recall any significant changes,” Conroy said. “It doesn’t really affect our enrollment. We only fill about 200 slots a year. We never have to scramble to fill slots here.”

Wilkes suggested that despite the turmoil facing most law schools, the changes have brought about more transparency, smaller classes and more of a focus on practical experience.

“Maybe this is a correction that was needed in the law school admissions world,” he said.

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