In line with a national decline, the Cornell Law School reported Friday an 11 percent drop-off in applications to its J.D. program.
More than 5,520 students applied to the law school in 2011 — 750 students fewer than in 2010, according to Richard Geiger, dean of admissions. Last year, the law school saw a 52 percent jump in applicants, an unparalleled surge highlighted by several national media outlets at the time.
This year, however, Cornell’s change in application numbers more closely reflected those of other institutions. According to the Law School Admission Council, the number of applicants to law schools nationwide declined by 11.5 percent, the lowest overall total since 2001.
Stewart Schwab, dean of the law school, said the shrinking applicant pool was caused by the economic recovery, as more college graduates now seek jobs immediately after graduation.
“It’s part of a nationwide decline,” Schwab said. “Usually we see applications rise in a recession as college graduates find it harder to find a job and think that they will ride out the recession with law school or graduate school.”
Geiger said that, despite the decline in the applicant pool, the 2011 applicant numbers remained exceptionally high.
“Even with that decline, we’ve still easily received the second most applications in our history,” Geiger said.
Geiger said that this year’s decline in applications “confirms the strong evidence that when the economy is strengthening, law school applications trend downward.”
But some legal experts questioned that view, arguing that an improving economy did not fully explain the nationwide drop-off in law school applications.
A pundit who blogs about legal academia, Prof. Brian Z. Tamanaha, law, Washington University in St. Louis, said applications have declined because students are now more informed of law school’s drawbacks.
“I think the only reason to go to law school today is to become a lawyer,” Tamanaha said. “People who were going to law school during the recession were making a mistake if they were trying to increase their chances of getting a higher paid job.”
Tamanaha said students often receive statistics that are “fudged,” citing law schools that report 90-percent employment nine months after graduation. “It’s a way of counting that has this effect — so if you’re working part-time at Starbucks, you’re employed,” he said.
He also questioned a U.S. News & World Report survey in which the top fifteen law schools in the country claimed a median starting salary of $160,000 in the private sector.
“The numbers that [students] read on law school career service pages don’t jive with their own experiences,” Tamanaha said.
He added that prospective law school students should demand more accurate information and pre-law advisers should be more forthcoming.
Cornell Career Services, however, maintained that it supplies its pre-law undergraduates with pertinent information about law careers.
“It’s incumbent upon pre-law advisers to discuss the realities of the legal market with their advisees,” said Jane Levy, senior associate director of Career Services. Levy said Career Services is still analyzing recent law school data, and she reminds students that “the cost of obtaining a legal education has risen sharply.”
Schwab said that, in spite of the decline in applications, the law school remains in fine shape and maintains high career placement rates.
“Cornell was just ranked second in the country for the percentage of the class getting those jobs at big law firms,” he said.