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Washington University law school students gather for lunch Jan. 27 in the commons area of the school. The school is experiencing an increase in student applications, bucking a national trend.

Admissions accomplished: Mo. law school bucks national trend

When St. Louis native Kevin Flannery started looking at law schools in the early months of 2013, he narrowed in on a few schools in Missouri, including Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri. He also considered some top-flight schools out of state, such as Columbia, Georgetown and NYU.

Ultimately, Flannery chose Washington University in his hometown of St. Louis.

“Wash U really stood out to me because I think the university has a vision for St. Louis that’s really compelling, and that’s … something that I want to be a part of, having grown up here,” he said.

Flannery’s reason for choosing Wash U was very personal, but it’s a choice an increasing number of other students are making as well. The school has seen a 21 percent increase in applications since 2011, at a time when law schools across the country — and some in Missouri — are seeing applications plummet.

Wash U says marketing may be a factor. But the school’s high number of graduates who find well-paid work as attorneys and its ability to compete with elite schools nationwide likely play a role, too.


An individual approach

The latest data released by the Law School Admission Council show that, as of Jan. 30, the number of law school applications nationwide declined 10.5 percent and the number of applicants dropped 8.6 percent since the same time in 2014. That national decline is part of a four-year trend of applications’ dropping substantially from year to year.

Fewer applications can translate into enrollment drops or can mean that law schools must be less selective when making offers.

Washington University wasn’t unaffected by the drop off — its number of applications fell by more than 500 in 2011, out of about 4,000 applicants applying.

“I think our dip was not as dramatic as many top law schools nationally,” said Katherine Scannell, Wash U’s associate dean for admissions.

“I think our dip was not as dramatic as many top law schools nationally.” – Katherine Scannell, Wash U’s associate dean for admissions

And the drop was short-lived, with the school quickly bouncing back by 2012 and surpassing 2010 numbers by 2014 with 4,649 applications. Scannell said the quality of candidates has “remained very high” throughout that growth.

“This is exciting, but does make the admissions decisions very difficult because we have so many candidates with amazing skills and experience,” she wrote in an email.

The median LSAT score has remained at 166 for the past three years, but that is a drop from the median LSAT score of 168 in 2011. The median GPA has also remained high, although it did drop slightly from 3.69 to 3.62 between 2013 and 2014.

The school made 1,398 offers in 2014, up from the roughly 1,000 offers it made each year after a drop in admissions in 2010. Scannell said that drop was intentional and due to changes in the legal market.

Scannell attributes the increase in applications almost entirely to the approach that focuses on the “individual student experience,” and stresses to each student why a law degree would specifically benefit them in their goals, she said.

Washington University’s reputation helps bring in applicants, too. Although there isn’t official data on how students chose Wash U, Scannell said she often hears that applicants chose the school after hearing from current students or alumni, hearing about a faculty member or are impressed with Wash U lawyers they’ve met.

“We hear that frequently,” Scannell said of the last reason.

The school also ranks No. 18 in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of law schools — the highest of the four Missouri law schools. The other three haven’t seen the same bump in applications in recent years.

Wash U’s tuition is also the highest of Missouri law schools, at nearly $50,000, but the school also sees results. According to the latest data available, about 90 percent of Wash U grads were employed within nine months after graduation.

Of those with jobs, more than 80 percent had jobs that required bar passage, and more than half found jobs at private law firms, as opposed to government jobs. Both of those numbers are again higher than the other three Missouri schools.

The SEC effect

Looking at those same statistics, the University of Missouri stacks up pretty high, too. The school ranks No. 64 on the U.S. News list of top law schools, and almost 94 percent of its graduates found jobs within nine months of graduating in 2013.

Of those with jobs, about 70 percent required bar passage and just under 40 percent found jobs at private law firms. While those numbers are lower than Wash U’s, so is Mizzou’s tuition, at less than $20,000 for in-state students and about $36,000 for out-of-state students.

The school, like the remaining Missouri law schools, has seen an enrollment drop in recent years but did see a 13 percent jump in applications in 2014. The school also made 308 offers in 2014, up from 290 in 2013 but still down from the almost 400 offers made in 2012.

But admissions director Michelle Heck isn’t expecting the uptick the school saw in 2014 to continue as a trend, at least not in 2015. As of early January, the school was down in applications from where it was at that time last year, and Heck isn’t optimistic it will reach the same number it saw in 2014 again in 2015.

“Realistically, since applications are down 8.5 percent, we do expect to be down,” Heck said, referring to national numbers from earlier in January. “We are working on several things to get the number as high as we possibly can … and we still have hopes we’re going to get closer than what we are [now.]”

Heck attributes the one-time increase in applications in 2014 to a couple of other factors. One was a switch in recruiting methods that included travelling to more places. Another factor was the university joining the Southeastern Conference.

“We’ve seen an increase in more students coming in from southern states that had not looked at Mizzou before,” she said.

The law school recruitment team started travelling to southern states, including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. The team has looked at other areas, too, which are mostly out-of-state.

“Missouri numbers have been crashing quite a bit in the last several years,” Heck said of why the team was looking out-of-state for recruits.

 The highest decrease was in the northwest, where the population is smaller, meaning numbers fluctuate more, Heck explained. After that, the New England area saw the biggest drop with a 12.4 percent decrease.


‘Bad publicity’

Heck said one reason law school applications are going down is because of the “bad publicity out there” about the legal job market. Candidates are also more financially conscious now, and might be waiting longer to go to law school.

Lydia Dagenais, director of law school admissions at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, also pointed to the job market and students’ “potentially choosing other avenues and putting off law schools” as reasons for the decrease nationwide. Another reason, Dagenais said, could be that more law schools have opened up in recent years

At UMKC, applications dropped by more than a third, between 2011 to 2014, from almost 900 to under 600. The school made 310 offers in 2014, also down from previous years.

“Students in this area are feeling the same things,” she said.

As for 2015, Dagenais said so far, indi cators show that applications are down again from where they were this time in 2014.

“We usually mirror the national picture,” she said.

“Everything is cyclical. It’s just a matter of time before it goes back on the upswing.” – Michelle Heck, admissions director for Mizzou

SLU seems be mirroring that picture, too, with applications dropping by more than half between 2011 and 2014, from more than 2,000 to less than 1,000. The school made 570 offers in 2014, down from more than 1,000 offers it made in 2011.

Administrative staff from SLU were not available for an interview, but in an email from spokeswoman Jessica Ciccone, assistant dean of admissions Mike Kolknick also pointed to the national trends, saying “those numbers are generally reflected in our region.”

While it’s impossible to pinpoint a specific reason, and whether job data and rankings correlate to applications, both SLU and UMKC do rank lower in those areas than Wash U and Mizzou. The U.S. News list of law schools ranks SLU as No. 93 and UMKC as No. 104.

In 2013, 84 percent of SLU graduates found employment within 9 months of graduation, with 75.6 percent of those jobs requiring bar passage. Half of those with jobs were employed by law firms. SLU’s tuition is about $40,000.

At UMKC, 87.5 percent of students were employed nine months after graduation, with 59.4 percent of those at jobs requiring bar passage. About 46 percent of those with jobs worked at private law firms. Tuition at UMKC is roughly the same as Mizzou’s.

Whatever the reason, schools that have seen drops in recent years are expecting the trend to turn around at some point.

“Everything is cyclical,” Heck said. “It’s just a matter of time before it goes back on the upswing.”

When exactly that will happen, nationally and at the individual schools, however, remains unclear.

“I don’t expect it to get there any time soon,” Dagenais said when asked when she thought UMKC might see application numbers back around the 900 level.