With a few notable exceptions, applications are flat this year compared with last at law schools nationally and in the Philadelphia region - a trend that is worrisome to some legal educators.
Law school applications typically rise in economic downturns, as job seekers give up hope and seek to ride out hard times in graduate school. But the increasingly uncertain job market, fears about how and when it will recover, and difficulty in finding student loans apparently have discouraged potential applicants.
"We are almost exactly where we were last year," said Camille Spinello Andrews, associate dean at Rutgers University Law School in Camden. "I think it is a matter of confidence, and confidence is not there yet."
She said the magnitude of the federal rescue effort might have convinced some individuals that the nation's economic troubles were worse than in past downturns.
At Widener University and Temple University, law school applications are off by about 2 percent and 1 percent.
"Ordinarily, in an economic downturn, you would expect applications to go up, but we are not seeing that this time around," said Marylouise Esten, associate dean for students at Temple Law School. "There is a lot of uncertainty."
The Law School Admissions Council, based in Newtown, Bucks County, which tracks law school admissions data and prepares the LSAT, the law school admissions exam, said that more than a year into the current recession, applications across the nation were off about 1 percent, at 56,481.
Its data covering the last decade show that applications tend to peak during tough economic times and fall dramatically as the economy picks up.
From 2000 to 2003, after the Internet bubble had popped and stocks and the job market languished, law school applications grew 36 percent.
But as the economy began to recover, applications fell, from 98,700 in 2004 to 82,400 last year.
And they are still dropping, despite the economic turmoil, said Wendy Margolis, a spokeswoman for the Law School Admissions Council.
"We are not seeing a spike," she said. "In past economic [downturns], we have seen some upturn. It is very expensive to go to law school, and loan sources have dried up."
Villanova University Law School, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Drexel University Law School are notable in that each has experienced an increase for reasons apparently unique to the schools.
Noe Bernal, Villanova's assistant dean for admissions, said the school had waged an intensive marketing campaign that is reaping new applicants, which he projects will be up from 3 to 5 percent when all applications are in.
At Penn's law school, where there is fierce competition for slots in the first-year class, applications are up 6 percent so far, to 6,169 for 250 places - the second-highest number of applications in its history.
Renee Post, associate dean for admissions, said Penn's focus on broadly educating students by exposing them to academic disciplines other than law had been a powerful draw.
Drexel has seen a jump in applications of about 60 percent over last year, law school dean Roger Dennis said.
But several factors unique to Drexel likely account for its result. For the first time this year, students could apply through the computerized Law School Admissions Council system, which increased the pool of potential applicants, he said.
Moreover, the school received provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association last year, a development that likely also added applicants.
The school's heavy emphasis on practical, work-related experience for its students also has attracted applicants, Dennis said.
One reason applications might be off nationally, Dennis said, is that potential students have many more sources of information about the job market, notably Web sites and blogs, and that has generated a steady drumbeat of bad news.
Some lawyers and consultants to the legal industry say this downturn is the worst they have seen. And there are employment statistics to back that up. Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the year ending in January show total employment in the legal industry declined about 1 percent. In past recessions, employment stayed flat or rose slightly before skyrocketing as recovery took hold.