Overall applications to Triangle law schools were down this year, but three of the four schools maintained their first-year enrollment in the face of a national slump that dropped the number of first-year law students to the lowest level since 1975.
The American Bar Association reported last week that 39,675 students enrolled in a first-year Juris Doctor program this fall. Thats an 11 percent drop from 2012, and the lowest enrollment since 1975, when enrollment was 39,038. Newly minted lawyers face a competitive job market, and many students are now thinking twice before amassing law school debt that can top $100,000.
But in the Triangle, only Campbell Universitys law school has fewer first-year students this fall than last year, declining 26 percent.
Were pretty consistent with the national trend on that, with the economy, said Brandon Yopp, spokesman for Campbells Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law. The state the economy is in, prospective students are being more tight with their money and are really thinking that through.
Except for Duke, Triangle law schools received significantly fewer applications in 2013 compared with 2012. Applications to UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill dropped 36 percent, to 1,517, while applicants to N.C. Central Universitys School of Law in Durham dropped 14 percent, and Campbells dropped 10 percent. Applications to Duke ticked up by less than 1 percent.
But school officials say they are not seeing a big drop-off in the quality of applicants. Median scores on the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT, remained steady at Duke and dropped only a point or two at Campbell, UNC and N.C. Central.
One point difference is absolutely meaningless in terms of quality for students, because it means just one question on the LSAT, said Bill Hoye, associate dean of admissions and student affairs at Duke.
Hoye said he thinks the tough job market has sharpened law students. In the past, it was easy to move from law school to a nice job at a law firm, he said, and the university saw students come with an attitude of nonchalance.
We just dont see those students anymore, Hoye said, explaining that Duke students have been more engaged in the past two or three years. Theyre self-directed. Theyre motivated. Theyre taking initiative.
That independent self-direction increases a students chance at employment, he said, and pointed to Dukes employment rate of 96 percent for the graduating class of 2013. Employment rates as of February this year for students seeking work were lower at other Triangle schools 80 percent at UNC.
Enrollment still strong
Enrollment remains good, though. UNC School of Law enrolled only 3 fewer first-year students this fall compared with last year. Spokeswoman Allison Reid said being the flagship university of North Carolina helped keep numbers up, as did the schools relatively low tuition $22,215 for in-state students and $38,846 for out-of-state.
Relatively speaking, our tuition is low, and there is value there, Reid said. Thats one reason why I think weve managed to hang on the past few years.
Duke saw no change in the number of first-year students. Director of admissions Mark Hill said this is because of the quality of Dukes education.
I think to some extent, people are aware that the legal job market is not as carefree as what it once was, but they know that top schools are still a good bet, he said. Were fortunate to be one of those.
N.C. Central University School of Law saw a significant increase in first-year enrollment. Its numbers rose 51 percent, to 245.
Laura Brooks, associate dean for student services, expressed surprise at the increase, but wagered it is due to the schools goal of being a school of opportunity, meaning it accepts students with lower grade-point averages and test scores than other schools.
There may be more people in the pool who didnt get in to a top-tier school and decided to apply here, Brooks said.