By Michael McGuire

The number of students taking the Law School Admission Test decreased this past year by 16.2 percent, according to data released by the Law School Admission Council. That is the biggest one-year drop in LSATs administered over the past 25 years.

“Most people in admissions aren’t surprised by this information,” said Brett Twitty, director of admissions at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. “People are thinking much more critically about attending law school than ever before.”

The recent economic recession and uncertainty of employment are forcing onetime law school hopefuls to reconsider applying, Twitty said.

Major publications like The New York Times have published articles about law school graduates saddled with debt. Those articles have had “a chilling effect” on students who had thought law school would be “great preparation for anything,” he said.

The average law student graduated in 2011 with $100,433 in debt, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Slightly more than 3,400 people have applied to W&L Law this year, although a few more applications might still come in, Twitty said. That’s a 15 percent decline from last year.

During the 2009-2010 school year, the number of LSATs administered jumped 13 percent, according to the Law School Admission Council. Applications to W&L Law also spiked.

The number of LSATs given has declined over the past few years. Graph by Michael McGuire.

“When the economy went south, people looked to law school,” said Twitty. People are now thinking differently, he said.

Regardless of the number of applicants to the law school, the W&L Law admissions staff aims for an incoming class of about 135 students each year, Twitty said. A consistent number helps maintain small class sizes while guaranteeing a certain amount of tuition revenue.

Anne Richard, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia School of Law, said that UVa Law also aims for a consistent class size: between 350 and 360 students every year.

Accepting the same number of students each year, regardless of the number of applicants, affects how selective a school will appear in law school rankings. For example, a school that accepts 300 students from an applicant pool of 5,000 will appear more selective than a school that accepts 300 students from an applicant pool of 3,500.

But UVa Law is not worried about how selective it appears, said Richard, who became the school’s dean of admissions in July 2011. For Richard, the quality of students is more important.

“Our applicant pool continues to be amazingly strong,” she said.

With fewer students applying, law schools are now competing with each other to attract students. The average student admitted to W&L Law applies to 16 schools, said Twitty.

But even with tuition set at $42,425 for the upcoming academic year, W&L Law is drawing students.

“We’ve had more people come to the admitted student events than any other year,” Twitty said. “This past weekend, 114 accepted students came to visit the law school campus.”

Twitty, who graduated from W&L Law five years ago, said he expects the number of students applying to law school to remain low over the next several years, calling this year’s decrease in applicants “a normalizing of interest.”

“The froth has gone out of the applicant pool,” he said. “You hope what’s left is a more serious group of students.”

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