The 2008 market crash fell hard on the legal industry. Cash-strapped law firms laid off attorneys in droves and cut back on new hires. Many tasks once performed by young associates were automated or outsourced to contract lawyers. Full-time employment for recent law school grads sank, bottoming out at less than 54 percent in 2011.
It was a bad time to be a lawyer, and prospective students figured that out quickly. Law school applications — already in a slow decline — fell off precipitously after the Great Recession. For the past three admissions cycles, the number of applicants has hovered below 60,000, down from 88,000 in the 2009-2010 cycle, according to data from the Law School Admission Council and Law School Transparency.
But this year, law schools are seeing an unexpected double-digit jump. And a new report says the 2016 election is a factor.
A survey of more than 500 pre-law students, released Thursday by the education service provider Kaplan Test Prep, showed that nearly one-third of them said President Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton “impacted their decision to become lawyers.”
Kaplan, which provides prep courses for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), offered a list of anecdotes from soon-to-be law students who said the election motivated them to apply. Their reasons varied, as did their politics, according to Kaplan. Some reportedly expressed concerns about the administration’s crackdown on immigration, while others said Trump himself made them want to pursue public office.
“The election gave me a litmus test for how divided our country will be for the next few years and how I want to remedy that,” said one applicant who, like others, was not identified in the survey. “The country needs level headed leaders and through law school, I believe that I can become one of them.”
“I had already planned to attend law school previous to the 2016 election,” responded another. “President Trump’s support of the separation of powers, and his administration’s commitment to the rule of law have only further inspired me to pursue a career in the field of law.”
Law schools around the country are still accepting applications, so a complete picture of this cycle’s data won’t be available for some time. But figures from the Law School Admission Council already show a significant uptick.
In December, the council reported that the number of applicants was up 12 percent and applications were up 15 percent over the same time last year. Those numbers held steady as of mid-January, according to more recent data.
In another indicator of the upward trend, nearly 28 percent more LSAT tests were administered in December 2017 than December 2016, as U.S. News and World Report noted last month.
Lots of different factors could account for all this. The economy and job market have shown steady improvement. Law schools have offered tuition discounts. Though the entry-level market for new lawyers still isn’t rosy, firms are hiring again.
But a Trump bump, as it has been called, may be part of the explanation, too. Some of the most consequential news stories of the past year have revolved around the administration’s court battles. The president has picked fights with judges and openly attacked the nation’s top law enforcement officials. And the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has acquainted the entire country with incremental developments in complex federal court proceedings.
“Trump has had a galvanizing effect on many prospective students, both Democrat and Republican,” Dave Killoran, chief executive of the admissions consulting firm PowerScore, told U.S. News and World Report. “We see our students discussing specific policies far more frequently than in the past, and the depth of feeling they are expressing is greater than ever before.”
Jeff Thomas, director of Kaplan Test Prep’s pre-law programs, also noted that there has been a lot of speculation about how the political climate has affected the rise in applications.
“We now have an answer: it’s significant,” he said in a statement Thursday. “The bump is real.”