Has law school lost its appeal?
Last year, for the first time since the 1997-98 admission cycle, the number of applicants to law school declined, by 4.6 percent, and so far this year, the number has declined by 9.5 percent.
With falling numbers even among the top schools, admissions officers and career counselors say they are not sure what is causing the drop. They suggested that in an improving economy, college students may prefer jobs to law school, or that rising undergraduate debt loads have discouraged some students from borrowing still more to pay for a law degree.
It may be that a surge in popularity a few years ago has, perversely, led to the current decline in interest in law schools, said David E. Kelley, creator and producer of the television show "Boston Legal" and himself a lawyer. "The more lawyers there are, the more people are out there to encourage others not to go to law school," Mr. Kelley said.
He added: "I personally still have a very glamorous view of the law. But maybe that's because I'm out of it, and I get to write about what I would like the practice of law to be."
At Columbia, 8,020 would-be lawyers applied to start law school last fall, compared with 8,355 a year earlier. At New York University School of Law, the number fell to 7,872 from 8,220. At Stanford, the numbers fell to 4,863 from 5,040. At Harvard Law School, the numbers fell to 7,127 from 7,386.
At Yale Law School, however, there were just five fewer applicants last year, a drop to 3,778, from 3,783.
"You've got to expect those cycles to happen, whether that's tied to the latest hit TV show" or some other factor, said Marshall Tracht, vice dean at Hofstra University School of Law, which has seen a slight decline.
"There are some people who go to law school because they don't know what else to do," Mr. Tracht said, "and there are a lot of other people who are really committed to going to law school because of what they want to accomplish with their lives."
The drop may also be a correction to numbers that had soared a few years ago, Mr. Tracht and several law school admissions officers said. In the 2003-4 admission cycle, the number of applicants hit 100,600, according to the Law School Admission Council. The biggest increase occurred in the 2001-2 admission cycle, in the wake of the dot-com bust.
The number of applicants — 95,800 in the 2004-5 admission cycle — is still far greater than it was 10 years ago, when about 75,000 people applied. At this point in the current admission cycle, the numbers have fallen to 60,397 from more than 66,000 at this time last year.
James Calvi, a professor at West Texas A&M University and chairman of the Prelaw Advisors National Council, said fewer people may be applying to law school because more are applying to medical school.
"That is the running joke among prelaw advisers," he said. "There might be a grain of truth, if applications to medical school are up."
Medical school applications rose in 2005, to 37,364 from 35,735 the previous year, according to data collected by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the entrance examination for business schools, does not gather data on applications directly, but it reports that in the past three years, more than half of two-year M.B.A. programs had declines in applicants.
Ursula Olender, associate director of career services at Dartmouth College, said that students are "borrowing more money for undergraduate school, and law school is certainly quite expensive."
She added: "Before you take on that kind of debt, it's going to be really important that that's what you want to do."
James Langerud, an associate dean at Grinnell College, said some students might go to law school later.
"When times are good, and there are other things to do for a few years, I think they do" those other things, he said, "and then they go."