ST. LOUIS — Missouri law schools expect fewer students in the fall after several years of significant enrollment growth both regionally and nationally.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week that the University of Missouri's flagship campus in Columbia has received 17 percent fewer applications this year. Applications at Washington University dropped 13.3 percent, while St. Louis University is seeing a nearly 20 percent decline.
A national group that tracks law school enrollment says that applications are down more than 10 percent overall compared to this time last year.
The economic downturn means that law school graduates can no longer count on landing lucrative jobs straight out of college. The declining interest comes one year after many schools reported record enrollment.
"The stories about the legal market have certainly dampened some people's enthusiasm," said Paul Pless, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Law. Applications at Illinois are down nearly 8 percent so far this year.
Melissa Hamilton, 35, is a recent MU law school graduate still looking for a job. She's applied for a few government positions but is waiting until she passes the bar exam before making a stronger push. She's also looking into jobs where she could also use her master's degree in social work.
"I've known for the past year it would be hard to find a job," Hamilton said. "It's making me open my search up to things I wouldn't have considered. I kind of have to get creative."
Area schools say that the declining interest hasn't translated into a lower overall quality of applicant, at least as measured by test scores.
Legal observers even offer a positive spin on the drop — they say it may help the profession by weeding out students who lack a passion for law.
"That's not a bad thing, that people are thinking about it on the front end," said Lawrence Dessem, dean of Missouri's law school. "I have a sense it may lead to more satisfied lawyers down the line."
Mary Ann Clifford, assistant dean for admissions at Washington University, suggested that an influx of first-year law students coming straight from their undergraduate experiences helped account for last year's surge. With fewer jobs overall, students who otherwise would work a few years before applying to law school instead went immediately into graduate school.
Law firms are also adjusting to the new economic reality. Some have developed nonpartner track positions with lower ceilings in terms of pay, benefits and prestige. More are relying on contract attorneys, a higher-paying version of the temp worker. And customers are demanding great efficiencies from the firms they employ.
"Obviously, law firms serve clients. As those clients go through economic struggles, you see a change in demand for legal services," said Dan Nelson, partner and hiring chairman for Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis.
Not all area graduates are struggling to find work. Ty Harden, 33, is a recent Missouri graduate who was offered the first job he interviewed for, a position with a small civil litigation firm in Springfield.
He figures that one advantage he had over some of his still-unemployed classmates was a willingness to consider jobs, regardless of where they might be situated.
"It's probably a matter of flexibility," Harden said.