Law School Applicants Decline While Interest in Public Service Rises: Sign of the Times?

‘Maybe I’ll apply to law school.’ That’s a phrase I’ve heard countless undergraduates utter when, in my capacity as advisor to students at my college who are applying to graduate school, I’ve asked them about their plans. When I’ve then asked these students what exactly interests them about the law, or what area of the law they are thinking of going into, I have usually gotten vague responses of ‘oh, something corporate’—students (and their parents) assuming that such a path means the biggest paycheck.

Students will soon be offering different responses. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports that law school applications are down. According to the Law School Admission Council Inc, the number of students applying to law school is down this year by 11.5% from a year ago to 66,876 total, the lowest number since 2001. Applications at Fordham University Law School are down by 15%, while those to Washington University in St. Louis’ Law School are down by 11%:

Prospective law students increasingly are aware of the grim job market for lawyers and the challenges they would face in paying off law-school loans, college career advisers said. Corporate law firms, long the employer of choice for many graduates, have cut back on hiring in recent years, and most firms haven’t raised salaries for starting lawyers………

Even the American Bar Association has seen fit to drive home the risks of law school. “The rising cost of a legal education and the realities of the legal job market mean that going to law school may not pay off,” the ABA said in a 2009 report, which noted that the average law student could expect to graduate with more than $100,000 in school debt.

When students do apply to law school, their applications suggest that they are applying to law school not just because it seems like ‘the thing to do,’ but because they have a clear interest in pursuing a legal career. The January 8th New York Times profiled law school graduates who are unemployed and saddled with huge loans, while pointing out that, even with far fewer job openings for lawyers, law schools have continued to enroll students:

About 43,000 J.D.’s were handed out in 2009, 11 percent more than a decade earlier, and the number of law schools keeps rising — nine new ones in the last 10 years, and five more seeking approval to open in the future.

But perhaps all those law schools should note that students have started to wise up and are more and more aware that just having a law degree does not mean a cushy job at a fancy law firm, with a paycheck to match. Says Ryan Heitkamp, a pre-law adviser at Ohio State University:

“When the economy first went down, students saw law school as a way to dodge the work force…The news has gotten out that law school is not necessarily a safe backup plan.”

The Wall Street Journal also notes that applications to masters programs in business schools may well be down this year, too. Figures for the fall of 2011 have yet to be tallied but last year saw a decline of 1.8% in the number of applications. Students, it seems, are ‘starting to feel they don’t need an advanced degree to improve their career opportunities,’ the Wall Street Journal suggests. 

Furthermore, the New York Times has found that, in the recession, more college graduates have been considering careers in public service rather than in the private sector:

As job hunts became tough after the crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested that more young people considered public service. Exactly how big that shift was is now becoming clear: In 2009 alone, 16 percent more young college graduates worked for the federal government than in the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from the American Community Survey of the United States Census Bureau. A smaller Labor Department survey showed that the share of educated young people in these jobs continued to rise last year.

“It’s not uncommon for me to hear of over 100 applications for a nonprofit position, sometimes many more than that, and many more Ivy League college graduates applying than before,” said Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, a trade group for nonprofits. “Some of these people haven’t been employed for a while and are happy to have something. But once they’re there, they’ve recalibrated and reoriented themselves toward public service.”

Renewed interest in public service is visible across the country. Applications for AmeriCorps positions have nearly tripled to 258,829 in 2010 from 91,399 in 2008. The number of applicants for Teach for America climbed 32 percent last year, to a record 46,359. Organizations like Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers have been overwhelmed — and overjoyed — with the swelling demand from talented 20-somethings.

It is not clear whether this trend to working in public service jobs rather than in the more lucrative private sector will last—whether, if corporate law firms do start hiring more lawyers, recent graduates will leave altruism behind and seek to shore up their bank accounts. But it is a sign that students have started to realize that a law degree is no automatic ticket to a high salary and career success—that it’s not a bad thing at all to take a job that is first of all about service to society, and even about making a difference in society.


Photo by .mary.


Sumit jamadar
Sumit jamadar6 years ago


Tomasz Grabarczyk

Thanks for this :)

Debbie Wasko
Past Member 6 years ago

Those looking for the most lucrative avenues has now switched from the already overloaded legal profession to, in my opinion, to a lateral choice ... the federal government, also breeding grounds for greed and power.

Non-profits, if pure, will start out good and those dedicated will remain, the rest will bail to greater for-profit avenues ... or the non-profits themselves will become diluted, as all good-starts do.

Petra Luna
Petra L6 years ago

Do we really NEED more lawyers? Maybe because of the state of affairs, there will be more cases than attorneys, and they'll have to take the worthy cases rather than the greedy cases.

Parvez Z.
Parvez Zuberi6 years ago

Interesting article which gives over all view of job market

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y6 years ago

Hey, in order to be an elected representative, shouldn't law school be a requirement?

Perhaps if we made a bar exam a sine qua non of running for office, we'd have less idiots throwing their hats in!

Would-be politicians would actually have to know something about public policy and administration.

Gemma M.

I guess it has to do mainly with job stability.
In Spain, public service has always been a very demanded sector when looking for a job, as job stability is highly valued here (even during "good" times, most people prefer a lesser paid permanent position over a job that offers more money but less stability)

Bernadette P.
berny p6 years ago

Surprised by this as....if you sneeze on front of someone you get sued!

K s Goh
KS G6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Tamara D.
Tamara Dreier6 years ago

This is encouraging, and I hope this trend continues. Although, in light of the recent attacks on public sector workers, I'm not holding my breath. :(