Applications to the University of Maryland Law School have plummeted 31 percent this year, the latest indication that a dismal job market and high dissatisfaction among many lawyers in practice continue to erode interest in legal careers.
By its application deadline last week, Maryland had received 2,400 letters from would-be students seeking a slot in next fall's entering class. That's about a thousand fewer applications than the school received last year and down about 1,700 from 1992, when applications to the school hit an all-time high.
Applications also are on the decline at the state's only other law school, the University of Baltimore. Six weeks before that school's deadline, applications are off about 28 percent from last year, school officials said.
The downturns are some of the steepest ever at those law schools, and are running ahead of the slide in law school applications across the country. Those numbers show a decrease of 14.8 per-cent compared with the same time last year, according to the Law School Admissions Council, a Newtown, Pa., firm that tracks law school applications.
"We're certainly not in a panic situation, because we've always been somewhere in the high end of the applicant pool," said Donald G. Gifford, dean of the Maryland law school. "But If I were the dean of 50 law schools around the country right now, I wouldn't be feeling real good."
Beverly Falcon, associate dean for admissions at UB, said an upturn in applications at the law school could come soon, when college students begin their spring breaks.
But Ms. Falcon added: "Whether that is enough to pull things in another direction, I don't know."
Diminishing interest in a law school education is not a new phenomenon. Nationally, the number of students seeking legal educations has fallen four straight years, according to the Law School Admissions Council.
But the decrease this year is steeper and has affected both the quantity and quality of future law school classes.
For its next incoming class, for instance, Maryland will send out acceptance letters to about 850, hoping to lure a class of 260 students, said James F. Forsyth, assistant dean for student admissions. But officials will be filling those slots from a pool of about 1,700 fewer applicants than four years ago.
"Obviously, there will be an impact on the quality" of the entering class, Mr. Gifford said. "But it's nothing we need to be terribly concerned about. For some of the schools that are at the other end of the pecking order of legal education, the quality of the student body will be significantly less."
Mr. Gifford said the number of Maryland residents applying to the UM law school had held relatively steady.
There has been a steeper decline, however, in the number of out-of-state applicants, those who traditionally have the highest academic credentials.
Officials at both state law schools attributed lower numbers of applications to several factors, notably a job market that many students believe is shrinking.
That is more than idle worry on the part of the prospective students. Nationally, 11 percent of new graduates are unemployed six months after they leave school. A full 30 percent are not working in full-time legal positions, according to statistics compiled by the National Association for Law Placement.
"There's a reluctance among those people who have jobs to give them up and go back to school, especially when jobs are getting hard to come by," said Ms. Falcon.