Fewer people have applied to law schools around the nation this year, sparking debate about what could be steering people away from the profession.
Because of the improving economy, prospective lawyers may be choosing to head into the work world first, say law school officials and others. Other factors cited include the increasing competitiveness of law school admissions, which could be scaring away applicants, the rising price of attending law school, or a perception that the legal profession may no longer be in vogue.
The number of people who applied to law school by Feb. 3 was 60,397, down 10 percent compared with last year, according to preliminary data from the Law School Admission Council. Although many law schools will continue accepting applications for another month, schools had received three-quarters of their applications by this time last year.
Among Boston-area schools, some are seeing a drop in the number of applicants, while others, including Harvard Law School and Boston University School of Law, are not. It is hard to spot the trend by school because students have been applying to a larger number of schools, admissions specialists say. Boston College Law School declined to provide figures.
Northeastern and Suffolk law schools report having fewer applicants compared with this time last year. Northeastern has received about 125 fewer applications, a 5 percent drop, on the heels of a 4 percent decline in applications the previous year. At Suffolk, applications are down 2 to 3 percent.
Suffolk and Northeastern said their biggest drop was in applicants with lower LSAT scores, so they are optimistic they can maintain the quality of their entering classes this fall. But bigger declines would force them to make some tough decisions, including considering whether to admit smaller classes or accept students with lower scores, they said.
''I will be worried if next year we have another big drop," said MJ Knoll-Finn, director of admissions at Northeastern Law. ''Every law school will be having these conversations in the next few years if the numbers are still going down."
The most likely explanation for this year's drop nationally, according to law school officials, is the relatively good economy. In January, the US jobless rate fell to 4.7 percent, a four-year low, according to the Labor Department.
When the national economy was ailing, law school applications jumped a whopping 18 percent for the class starting in 2002, and 10 percent for the next year's class.
''If people have good paying jobs and feel secure, they'll probably stay put" in their jobs, said Gail N. Ellis, dean of admissions at Suffolk Law. ''But if they are witnessing layoffs and consolations, people get very nervous and start looking to graduate school for advanced degrees."
But if the economy is the only factor, some caution, applications shouldn't be dropping quite so dramatically.
''The economy is funny, it's not booming like the 1990s, but it's not in recession like it was in 2001, either," said Peter Ubertaccio, an assistant professor of political science at Stonehill College and a pre-law adviser. ''It's a puzzle."
Ubertaccio wonders whether the applications boom a few years ago might have set the stage for its own bust, by scaring away students who saw how difficult it was for their friends to get in. He recalled a top student who graduated in 2004 with stellar LSAT scores and a long resume of volunteer work, and was put on the waiting list at Harvard.
''I've had a few come in and say 'Is this right for me now? Should I wait?' " he said.
Boston Bar Association president Ned Leibensperger has a daughter who recently finished law school and a 25-year-old son whose friends have applied or thought about it. He believes the real issue is the rising cost of law school.
Private law school tuition in the United States jumped 130 percent between 1990 and 2004, to an average of $27,000, according to the American Bar Association.
''My daughter and her friends are very concerned about law school debt," said Leibensperger, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery. ''My strong impression is that there's an intimidation factor, that it's hard to accept $100,000 worth of debt to go to law school."
Business schools appear to be experiencing the same cycle, but to opposite effect. As the economy improves, people begin to think an MBA might help them leverage the stock market or get ahead in consulting. Anecdotal evidence suggests applications are up nationally, according to a spokesman for the Graduate Management Admission Council, but no data is available yet.
Applications at BU School of Management are up 103 percent over this time last year, with about 700 received so far.
Business schools may actually be working to steal students away from law schools, said Sanford Kreisberg, an admissions consultant for prospective graduate students. He pointed out that Harvard Business School started a new program several years ago to encourage more applications from students straight out of college, a departure from the longstanding norm that applicants needed several years in the workforce.
''They figured out they were losing talented kids to law school," Kreisberg said.
Kreisberg also has another theory about the dip in law school applicants: The legal profession is no longer so attractive. He said the Supreme Court has been demystified, and public service is not appealing to liberal students during the Bush administration.
But no need to panic. ''The republic is not suffering from a shortage of lawyers," he said.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.