Prospective students leave the undergraduate admissions building to take a tour of Georgetown University campus in Northwest Washington, D.C., on September 22, 2010. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The number of people applying to U.S. law schools dropped nationwide for the third year in a row, prompting some law schools to slash the size of their entering classes.

As of May 17, about 55,760 people had applied to American Bar Association-accredited law schools for the 2013-14 school year — down 13.4 percent from 2012, according to data compiled by the Law School Admission Council.

Law school enrollment is also trending downward, with 48,700 people entering their first year of law school in fall 2011 — 7 percent below the previous year, and the first significant decline in a decade. The council has yet to compile nationwide enrollment data for fall 2012.

Last fall, George Washington University Law School cut its number of first-year law students from 474 to 398, the smallest in a decade and the second year in a row the school reduced its class size.

Applications for Georgetown University Law Center dropped 6 percent this year, from 8,100 for the 2012-13 year to 7,600 for the 2013-14 year, said Andrew Corn-
blatt, the law school’s dean of admissions. Although Georgetown plans to keep its class size at 575 for 2013-14, the school’s long-range planning committee is considering reducing that number in the future, Cornblatt said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we were smaller” entering the 2014-15 school year, he said.

The drop in applications follows a period in which too many new lawyers chased too few jobs. The 2008 economic collapse forced many of the nation’s largest law firms to dramatically reduce the number of first-year lawyers they hired in 2009 and 2010. At the same time, law school enrollment continued to climb — hitting a 10-year high of 52,500 in fall 2010 — leading to the lowest levels of employment for new graduates since 1996, a growing proportion of them carrying loans of $120,000 or more.

“In the boom times three to eight years ago, when applications were much higher, I think it got glutted,” Cornblatt said. “I think this is the right-sizing. There’s this adjustment being made.”

Cornblatt said growing concerns about the legal job market and law school debt are driving away less-serious potential applicants who a few years ago might have been eager to enter law school to weather the recession.

“There’s been so much noise about the legal job market and how tough it is, whether it’s worth the tuition and borrowing all that money,” he said. “That group of people who weren’t as committed just aren’t applying now. . . . The rest of world won’t weep over fewer people wanting to be lawyers, but for people like me who do admissions, it creates challenges. There are fewer top applicants and the same number of law schools fighting over a smaller pool of highly qualified applicants than four years ago.”