Law school applications down in the Triangle

sgilman@newsobserver.comDecember 25, 2013 

  • The Triangle’s incoming law school students

    Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law

    Number of applications: 1,103

    Number of first-year students: 121

    Median LSAT score: 154

    Employment rate* for the class of 2012: 93 percent

    Duke University School of Law

    Number of applications: 5,014

    Number of first-year students: 208

    Median LSAT score: 169

    Employment rate* for the class of 2012: 97 percent

    UNC School of Law

    Number of applications: 1,517

    Number of first-year students: 238

    Median LSAT score: 161

    Employment rate* for the class of 2012: 80 percent

    N.C. Central University School of Law

    Number of applications: 2,075

    Number of first-year students: 245

    Median LSAT score: 147

    Employment rate* for the class of 2012: 44 percent**

    *Not including students seeking graduate degrees or not seeking work

    **N.C. Central reported 45 percent of 2012 graduates’ employment unknown

    Sources: American Bar Association, individual university data

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. That’s 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 University’s law school has fewer first-year students this fall than last year, declining 26 percent.

“We’re pretty consistent with the national trend on that, with the economy,” said Brandon Yopp, spokesman for Campbell’s 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 University’s School of Law in Durham dropped 14 percent, and Campbell’s 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 don’t see those students anymore,” Hoye said, explaining that Duke students have been more engaged in the past two or three years. “They’re self-directed. They’re motivated. They’re taking initiative.”

That independent self-direction increases a student’s chance at employment, he said, and pointed to Duke’s 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 school’s 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. “That’s one reason why I think we’ve 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 Duke’s 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. “We’re 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 school’s 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 didn’t get in to a top-tier school and decided to apply here,” Brooks said.

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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