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The country’s most popular law school got an unexpected jolt

Georgetown University’s law school experienced a 41 percent increase in applicants for the fall 2021 entering class

Andrew Cornblatt, center, dean of admissions for Georgetown University Law Center, chats with a students between classes on campus in D.C. on Oct. 12. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Year in and year out, the Georgetown University Law Center in D.C. gets more applications than any other law school in the country (and yes, that includes law schools at Harvard and Yale and Stanford). But what happened for the 2021-22 academic year was historic.

Collectively, U.S. law schools this year saw an increase of at least 12 percent in applicants for classes that started this fall and a 26 percent jump in applications — the largest in nearly 20 years, according to the nonprofit Law School Admission Council.

At Georgetown University Law Center, the increase was so high that it shocked Georgetown law officials, who have become accustomed to being the country’s most popular law school. The school saw a 41 percent increase in applicants — for a total of 14,052. Of all law school applicants nationwide, 1 in 5 applied to Georgetown. It is the largest law school in the country with some 2,000 students in juris doctor degree (JD) programs, with Harvard second at some 1,750 JD students.

The rise in law school applications across the country — which left some law schools overenrolled this fall — was a result of several factors, said Susan Krinsky, executive vice president for operations and chief of staff at the Law School Admission Council. “I don’t like to call it a perfect storm, but it was,” she said.

Fallout from the coronavirus pandemic played a big role, with economic uncertainty that traditionally fuels applications to professional schools, she said. Many young people lost their jobs and decided to give law school a chance. But a continuation of what is called “the Trump bump” was a factor too, she said.

Law school applications began to rise after the 2016 presidential election, with President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and immigration policies helping to fuel the increase, she said. What happened in 2020 — including the police killing of George Floyd and the racial justice movement that arose from it — spurred more applicants, she said, as did the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the confirmation of a controversial successor.

“There was a generalized increase in interest about what lawyers do — or can do,” she said.

A 2020 survey by Kaplan Test Prep of more than 100 U.S. law schools found that 84 percent of admissions officers (and 87 percent in a 2018 survey) believed that the political climate was a “significant” factor in the rise in applicants for that year — and that continued in the 2020-21 applications cycle.

Why, though, did Georgetown University Law Center have such a huge rise in applicants?

“I think it’s a combination of things,” said William M. Treanor, dean and executive vice president of Georgetown Law. “Washington, D.C., is a huge lure. It offers you things you can’t get anywhere else. And we have internships with lawmakers and policymakers and faculty engaged directly in the issues of the day.”

Georgetown has a night school, joint degree and advanced degree programs, an Office of Public Interest and Community Service and it specializes in some of the hottest legal subjects — including environmental, health and international law. Its Human Rights Institute is a draw for students — and it attracts some big legal names. Now on the faculty, for example, is Doug Emhoff, the country’s first second gentleman (he is married to Vice President Harris), a leading intellectual property and business litigator and expert on entertainment and media law.

Treanor said the political climate was an important factor in the surge of applications at Georgetown. He said he became interested in the law when he was in high school during a similarly contentious time in American political life — the Watergate era of the early 1970s. President Richard Nixon was forced to resign after his administration was caught breaking the law.

“That was a period in which people were drawn to law school and the thought that law matters and the fight for justice can have real consequences,” he said. “This has been a moment where we saw something similar, in politics, the divisions in society, the need for racial justice.”

It’s what cemented Kamal Rattray’s decision to apply. The Bronx high school teacher said he had long wanted to become a lawyer, but he applied after his father, who had a green card, was deported to Jamaica by the Trump administration for reasons he still doesn’t understand. Rattray’s immigrant students feared the same thing could happen to their families, he said.

“All the deportations, without due process, that the Trump administration took full advantage of while further disenfranchising communities of color inspired me to go to law school,” he said. “I think we need more lawyers of color in order to hold accountable people with ideologies akin to the Trump administration’s.”

Rattray had four law schools to choose from — but Georgetown was a no-brainer, he said. “I really felt like there was consistent outreach from Georgetown while I was in the application process. I also liked that the school has a Black Law Students Association, and there seems like there is a lot of camaraderie.”

The school’s numbers are also attractive to applicants. Georgetown ranks in the top 10 on the Princeton Review’s ranking of law schools for best classroom experience, and it has one of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios in the country. Ninety to 95 percent of students graduate in three years, and more than 95 percent of its students pass the bar exam on their first attempt. Ninety percent of students who graduated in 2020 (the latest year for which there is data) were employed by the time they received their degree, and Georgetown Law is tied for highest median starting salary among graduates working in private practice as associates.

Law school is expensive — and that’s true at Georgetown as well. For 2021-22, the cost of attending full-time is close to $100,000, the school’s website says, with $69,280 going to tuition. Seventy-eight percent of this year’s entering Georgetown Law class received scholarship aid of some sort.

The outreach to applicants is led by Andrew Cornblatt, the law school’s veteran dean of admissions. Cornblatt makes it a point to stay connected to students who come to campus, and is often stopped on campus by students who just want to say hi.

“Most people think of assembling a law school class as putting a puzzle together,” Cornblatt said. “For me it’s more like creating an orchestra with lots of different instruments, not just violins. I am always struck by how many talented, interesting, well-qualified applicants we receive from all over the world.”

Working at home during the pandemic, he spent hours each day interviewing 2,700 applicants in small groups. Zoom allowed him to visit 50 states, 37 countries and six continents.

“We are looking for applicants who really want to do this and while we are happy to welcome college seniors, we also put great emphasis on work and life experience,” Cornblatt said. “Opera singers, veterans, class presidents, Fulbright scholars, football players, Hill staffers, people working in nonprofits fully committed to public service.

For fall 2021, Georgetown enrolled 561 students from 45 states and 17 foreign countries, an acceptance rate of 12.9 percent — down from 21 percent a year ago. It was also the most diverse first-year class — with 40 percent identifying as people of color, as compared with 32 percent the previous year. Of the 561, 110 are Opportunity Scholars, which awards scholarships to students with the most significant financial need and high academic credentials. Women constitute 54 percent of the class.

Cornblatt played a key role in persuading Kathie Duperval, 24, to attend Georgetown. She was in the final stretch of applying to law school during the 2020 presidential election after a tough year navigating the pandemic and, she said, Georgetown’s outreach sold her.

“Specifically, Dean Andy made a tremendous effort to form connections with many students during the interview process,” she said. “Though virtual, he made sure to connect with us, and he even went out of his way to send personalized videos to admitted students on a weekly basis.”

Most popular course ever at Georgetown Law? How to fight for justice.

For Elena Bacon, 22, the social justice movement that emerged from Floyd’s murder changed her legal path. Once seeing herself as a corporate lawyer, she said she now plans to pursue a career in international human rights law so she can advocate for those being denied fundamental freedoms. Georgetown was always at the top of her list, she said, “because of the number of opportunities it offers for experiential learning, its distinguished Human Rights Institute, and its location in Washington, D.C.”

Now, Cornblatt — a graduate of Harvard University and Boston College law school — is engrossed in leading his 31st admissions season as dean.