Ben Franklin tuition
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The New York Times this week ran a story on the steep decline in law school applicants, which appears to be on track to hit a 30-year-low as prospective students weigh skyrocketing tuition (ranging from $20,000 to $45,000 a year) against diminishing job prospects.

The Times reported a 20 percent decrease in applicants from last year and a 38 percent falloff from 2010, leading law schools across the country to scale back admissions.

The UW Law School is following that trend. After a 27 percent decline in applicants since 2009 — from 2,951 to 2,153 — Law School Dean Margaret Raymond says the school made a conscious decision to cut back on admissions by 10 percent. The school enrolled 215 students last fall, compared with 278 in 2009.

The state’s other law school, at Marquette University, last fall actually admitted a few more students than in 2009, 224 this school year compared to 219 three years ago. But in that same period applicants dropped from 2,121 to 1,723, a 19 percent decline. Marquette Law School Dean Joseph Kearney didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

“It’s not just that there are fewer applicants,” Raymond says, “but they’re weaker. So one of the things we’re looking to do is make sure we maintain the strength of the quality of students we’re admitting. That’s one thing that lots of law schools are being attentive to.

"And going down 10 percent, we were consistent with what a lot of our national colleagues were doing.”

According to the Times, the decline in available jobs is not just due to a glut of lawyers or a tightening of the job market because of a sour economy. It’s being driven in part by technological factors like the Internet, which make legal research easier and less time-consuming, and online legal forms, which can be filled out by people without a law degree.

Until the changes in the legal industry level out, it doesn’t make sense to keep pumping out more lawyers than the field can absorb, Raymond says.

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“It’s not just that the economy is in a downturn,” she says. “I think because of changes in the nature of the practice that faucet isn’t likely to open up again in quite the same way. That isn’t to say there won’t be more work for lawyers. But we have to be creative and think about where it’s going to be and how people can best be prepared for it.”

In the short term, Raymond says, fewer students can mean more resources available for each one.

But in the future, who knows? Raymond says there's no telling how long the lawyer glut will last, or what the long-term impact on the Law School might be.

“Admitting as we did 25 students less in the first year doesn’t take us a really long way toward reducing our need for teachers,” she says. “But of course, it’s a challenging budget time. We’re consciously thinking all the time about strategies to get the most bang for our buck and to be really careful with our resources, as we have to do because we’re a public institution.”

Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.