Nationally, applications to law school have dropped by 12.5 percent this year, continuing a general downward trend that began in 2005, according to the Law School Admission Council.
As of Aug. 8, a total of 67,957 students had submitted 469,642 applications to ABA-certified law schools, data show. The number of applicants is down 13.7 percent from 2011, and 18.3 percent in the hard-hit Midwest.
A glut of attorneys and the recession are blamed for the drop, and several law schools are cutting class sizes or offering more scholarships as a result.
The big law firms, which tend to pay the highest salaries, have scaled back hiring or outsourced legal work to other countries, said Wendy Margolis, director of communications for the council. Facing a recession, their clients aren't willing to pay as much for legal assistance. A few firms even closed.
That, coupled with the cost of law school, has students reconsidering whether a law degree is worth the $100,000 to $150,000 investment, legal experts say.
In past recessions, enrollment tended to rise as people pursued a professional degree to enhance their job prospects, Margolis said.
"This time it's gone a little bit deeper," she said. "Accumulating a lot of debt with uncertain prospects is not a great way to ride out an economic downturn."
The number of applicants shot up in 2002 and 2003 and topped 100,000 in 2004, then dropped 4.8 percent in 2005 and 7.4 percent in 2006. The assumption was the market was simply correcting, but the numbers continued to slide through 2008 as the recession hit full force, Margolis said. The number rose again temporarily in 2009, as the economy appeared to improve, but fell by 10.7 percent in 2011 after firms began to lay off lawyers and cut back on hiring.
Meanwhile, the median starting salary for new law school graduates fell nearly 5 percent for the class of 2011, from $63,000 to $60,000, and it's fallen nearly 17 percent since 2009, according to NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement.
Even more dramatic, the median starting salary in the private sector has plummeted 35 percent, said James Leipold, NALP's executive director.
Overall, just 49.5 percent of law school graduates had obtained jobs in law firms, compared with 50.9 percent for the Class of 2010 and 55.9 percent a year earlier, he said.
At the UI, 152 of the 190 law school graduates in 2011 had jobs, or 80 percent, but just 51.3 percent were at law firms. Thirty-four jobs were short-term and 11 of those were funded by the UI. Of the total, 119 required a law degree.
The previous year, 170 of the 195 UI law graduates in the Class of 2010 found employment, or 87 percent, with 11 again funded by the UI. Of the total, 159 were full-time, 142 required a law degree, and 54 percent were at law firms.
Those data predate the college's recent scandal. Job-placement figures from spring 2012 won't be released by the ABA until Feb. 15.
UI College of Law Dean Bruce Smith said law graduates will have to be "very strategic" about their job searches in coming years. The law school started a course in Chicago this summer to teach students about the changing legal profession, which he said is "evolving globally."
Much of the pretrial discovery work today is outsourced to India, the Philippines and other countries, Smith said. That will affect the jobs available domestically, but also open up opportunities abroad, he said. One recent UI graduate took his first job in India.
"Some of my friends who graduated are having a little bit of a difficult time finding jobs for themselves," noted UI third-year law student James McCaughan.