June 9, 2014

Connecticut law schools adjust to fewer applicants

Ed Wilkes, associate vice president and dean of law admissions, Quinnipiac University School of Law
Ellen Rutt, associate dean for enrollment and strategic planning, University of Connecticut School of Law
Rendering | Centerbrook Architects and Planners
Quinnipiac is building a new law school facility on its North Haven campus that includes a 180-seat, two-tiered courtroom shown below. The expansion comes as Quinnipiac and other U.S. law schools face declining applicants and enrollment.

Fewer students across the country want to be lawyers, and Connecticut law schools are feeling the pinch of a diminishing applicant pool.

Two of the state's three law schools are experiencing double-digit drops in applications for the fall semester. Officials say an uncertain job market, exacerbated by negative media coverage, is making potential students shy away from what was once seen as a lucrative career.

"The legal job market has suffered, and it hasn't quite fully rebounded yet," said Ed Wilkes, associate vice president and dean of law admissions at Quinnipiac University School of Law.

Combined with rising tuition and student debt, the trends have created a downward spiral for law schools nationally, Wilkes said. Law applications nationwide for fall 2014 are down 9 percent compared to last year, according to Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) data. That decline comes on top of years of plummeting interest: In 2004, nearly 100,000 people applied to law school; in 2013, that number dwindled to 59,400, according to LSAC.

"No one predicted there would be this kind of huge drop in applications," Wilkes said.

The decline in applications is linked to the perception of withering job prospects, school officials said. As in other industries, technology advances and outsourcing have disrupted the legal job market. The economic downturn forced firms small and large to reduce the number of summer associates and new hires, Wilkes said, although some Hartford law firms say they are adding more lawyers today than they did a few years ago.

Still, the industry contraction in recent years led to a glut of graduates angling for too few positions. Nine months after graduation, just 57 percent of the nation's 2013 law graduates had nabbed full-time jobs that require bar exam passage, according to the American Bar Association.

The uncertain outlook has led to a "turn off about law school in general," said Ellen Rutt, associate dean for enrollment and strategic planning at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Connecticut law schools are responding to declining student interest in various ways. Quinnipiac reduced its class size from 123 in 2011 to 84 in 2013 to maintain the institution's selectivity, Wilkes said. This fall, the school will have an even smaller pool to draw from: Applications are down 20-25 percent from last year, Wilkes said. The decline comes on the heels of a 48 percent drop in applicants between 2011 and 2013, according to LSAC.

While Quinnipiac would prefer a larger class, the smaller numbers align with the university's long-term vision to create a more selective law school. "We've decided to try and maintain quality as best we can, which means smaller classes," Wilkes said.

UConn School of Law has extended its application deadline to July to lure more law school hopefuls. As of May, applications were down by double digits, Rutt said. The decline follows a 42 percent drop in applications between 2011 and 2013, according to LSAC.

While applications at the vast majority of law schools nationwide are down, Yale Law School in New Haven appears to be an outlier. Yale, while experiencing some fluctuation in enrollment in previous years, has received more applications this year than last, said Janet Conroy, the school's director of communications.

"We're a very small law school, so we haven't experienced any unusual drop in applications and our enrollment has remained unaffected," Conroy said in an email. The school enrolled 199 students in 2013, according to LSAC.

Hoping to better prepare students for the workforce, both Quinnipiac and UConn are doubling down on efforts to embed practical experience within the law school curriculum.

Quinnipiac has long offered externships to help law students gain real-world experience and professional contacts. The school guarantees at least one externship placement at over 300 sites, or the school's legal clinic; some students may participate in multiple experiences, Wilkes said.

At UConn, the law school is expanding its existing experiential learning efforts. In-house and externship clinics give students the opportunity to integrate theory and practice, Rutt said. The school has added high-demand focus areas such as intellectual property, entrepreneurship, energy and environmental law.

UConn students also benefit from debt loads that are lower than the national average, providing more flexibility in the job search, Rutt said. "It allows our students to avoid having to stretch really hard to get one of those relatively scarce, very high-paying jobs at firms not doing much hiring right now," Rutt said.

Programs at the Connecticut Bar Association aim to help students with another key aspect of the job search: networking. A new mentoring program headed by the association's Young Lawyers Section will connect law students with attorneys who have a few years of experience. The program allows students to tap the wisdom of lawyers who have recently conducted a job search, said Emily Graner Sexton, incoming chair of the section.

A 2007 Quinnipiac graduate, Sexton realizes the reality for today's law students is different than that of years past. But she believes the industry has turned a corner. "Things are opening up, firms are willing to start rehiring and you don't hear as much about firms deferring positions," she said.

One upside to the current climate is a lower student-to-faculty ratio. These days, law students have greater access to clinics, take more diverse courses and enjoy more contact with faculty who are a primary source for referrals and clerkships. The environment is more personal, with schools "finally recognizing law students as individuals and not as statistics," Rutt said.

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