Applications Hit Record Highs for U.S. Law Schools : Increase Attributed to Impact of Television Hit 'L.A. Law'

Times Staff Writer

For the first time in more than 15 years, law school applications in the United States are breaking records.

At the California Western School of Law in San Diego the expectation of a record number of first-year students has led Dean Michael H. Dessent to take the unusual step of assigning himself to teach a class.

"The dean's going to have to put on the raincoat and boots, watch out for the tomatoes and get back in there," Dessent said.

The unprecedented interest in law school--reflected in record applications at the University of San Diego, UCLA, USC and elsewhere--is attributable in large part to a single law firm, admissions officials believe.

That would be the firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak. They practice on the weekly television series, "L.A. Law."

"Everybody wants to say (the increase is due to) 'L.A. Law'," said Nancy C. Ramsayer, director of admissions at Cal Western. "I keep wanting to discount that, saying it may have just something to do with it.

'Oh My God, Maybe It Is That'

" . . . However, the other day I had someone telling me they were doing a research project, and they had to do so much research, and it wasn't like 'L.A. Law' at all. And I thought, oh my God, maybe it is that."

In line last week at the financial aid office at Cal Western, incoming student David Guglielmi, 22, of Washington, D.C., said that indeed "L.A. Law" did play a part in his decision to apply to law school.

The show portrays "younger people having a good time, making a lot of money, the fine clothes," he said. That image is what "people are buying into. That's what I bought into."

Jeanne Taber, 23, of Eugene, Ore., another incoming student, said that she has never watched the show, but she's convinced it still affected her application.

"I decided to go to law school before the show but the competition was a lot tougher because of the show," she said. "I think it's directly related to the TV show, the glamour on TV."

While Cal Western, an independent law school accredited by the American Bar Assn., has been able to expand its class size from 240 to about 300 to accommodate increases in applications, most top schools don't have that luxury.

6,533 Applied for 320 Spaces

UCLA received 6,533 applicants--"clearly a record"--for the 320 spaces in this fall's class, Michael Rappaport, dean of admissions at UCLA, said. That was a 16.5% increase over the 5,607 applicants for the 1988-89 entering class, he said.

"The thing that's interesting about the statistics is not only is the number of applicants way up but the quality of applicants also is up," Rappaport said. "What we find is that we are turning down people who would have been admitted several years ago, even last year."

Tuition at UCLA is $832.25 per semester, Rappaport said. But even a tuition of $15,316, which is what the coming year will cost at USC, did not deter applicants. USC received a record 3,450 applicants for this year's class of about 190, said Robert M. Saltzman, dean of students.

At USD, officials received a record 3,570 applications for 320 spaces, said Young, the assistant dean. Just two years ago, the school received 2,450. That's a 46% increase.

Young ordered 40,000 brochures last fall, figuring they would last two years. Instead, the school sent out 28,000 last year alone and needs to reorder, she said.

Stanford received a record 5,255 applicants for a class of 170, or 31 applications for each opening, said Dora Hjertberg, director of admissions. In San Francisco, the University of California's Hastings College of the Law got 5,126 applications, a new high, up 18% from 4,330 the year before, said Thomas Wadlington, admissions director.

Harvard got about 7,800 applications for 540 spots, said Joyce Curll, assistant dean for admissions. Yale got 4,682 for 175, said Loretta Tremblay, assistant director of admissions. Both figures were records.

This year's cascade of applications is particularly intriguing, UCLA's Rappaport said, because it came "in the face of predictions three or four years ago, when law school applications were down, that law school applications would level off or maybe just keep going down."

Bottomed in 1985-86

Interest in law school, which had reached a previous peak in 1973-74, bottomed out in 1985-86, said William J. Kennish, vice president of operations for Law School Admission Services in Newtown, Pa.

LSAS runs the Law School Admission Test, which along with an applicant's college grade point average is used by most schools to rank candidates. In 1973-74, LSAS administered about 135,400 tests, Kennish said. In 1985-86, the end of 12 years of decline, the number administered was down to about 91,400, Kennish said.

In the 1988-89 testing year, the one during which most people who applied for this fall's entering class took the exam, LSAS administered 136,367 tests, Kennish said. "So we have in fact made up more than 12 years of decline in three years of increases," he said.

"Everyone asks if it's 'L.A. Law' and so forth," Kennish said. " . . . What's happened, I think, is that two factors have changed dramatically."

The first, he said, is economic.

"If the perception is that the economy is unsound," Kennish said, instead of going to law school, college graduates figure, 'Jeez, I've got to get into the marketplace.' "

Willing to Sacrifice

But when inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, remains low, as it was in early 1970s and then has been again since the mid-1980s, more people are willing to make the financial sacrifice law school requires, he said.

"A person applying to law school is making a commitment to about $20,000 a year now for three years," Kennish said. "That's a $60,000 out-of-pocket expense, plus they're out of the marketplace, which probably means another $60,000. That's fairly quickly over $100,000 in lost money by a person deciding to go to law school."

The second factor, Kennish said, is the "perception of opportunities for lawyers, which I believe are not driven by 'L.A. Law,' but rather reflected by 'L.A. Law,' that there are in fact great opportunities for lawyers.

" 'L.A. Law' gives the perception that people come out of law school and take $85,000-a-year jobs. So when you combine an improved perception of opportunity with an improved economic environment, I believe you have a very improved climate for an increase in law school applications."

Since NBC aired the first edition of "L.A. Law" on Sept. 15, 1986. Charles B. Rosenberg, the Los Angeles lawyer who is legal adviser to the show, said he has "heard many people say that the show is the cause or a major cause of the increase in law school applications."

'Glamorous and Interesting'

Though he said he doubts it is the primary cause, "I guess the best I can say is that it certainly is possible that it contributes to that trend because it does tend to paint the profession as glamorous and interesting."

Other admissions officials point to other television dramas as reasons behind the increase--as well as additional factors.

"There has been a heightened awareness of the profession due to things like the Bork hearings, the Irangate hearings," said Wadlington, admissions director at Hastings in San Francisco, referring to congressional hearings probing the nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court of Robert Bork and the Iran-Contra affair.

"You know, every time I turn around there's something legal on the tube," Wadlington said.

" . . . I think that also other professions have slid as far as attractiveness. I think Black Monday (the October 1987 Wall Street crash) burned off your traditional M.B.A. candidate and so people steered away from business. Medical schools have been down for several years, though they are bouncing back, and with talk of national health insurance it no longer is the golden profession it once was in terms of earnings."

Whether it is a beneficial trend that more students are interested in the law is another matter for debate.

'Good Profession'

Colin W. Wied, a San Diego attorney who is the current president of the State Bar of California, where there are more than 117,000 active attorneys, believes the interest in law schools reveals "a lot of people view (law) as a good profession to be in."

"Just as an observation, (the wave of applications) seems to me to belie the notion that law is a discredited profession," Wied said. "Just for starters. These are non-lawyers out there who, notwithstanding all the negative things that have been said recently about law and lawyers, want to be lawyers. I find that encouraging."

But the trend may have a distinct downside, said Rappaport, dean of admissions at UCLA.

"I swear we are seeing a growing, disproportionate number of technical backgrounds (among applicants)," Rappaport said. "Computer sciences, engineering majors, biology, chemistry, people out working in these fields, people with Ph.Ds. from MIT and Caltech applying to law school."

Rappaport emphasized that his observations were not yet statistically bolstered and he had just a "hunch." But "it's what I'm seeing. And if what I'm seeing is true, it's something we all ought to be concerned about. It suggests a real brain drain into the legal profession from the sciences and other technical areas, which frankly are more important to the 21st Century than lawyers. And, yes, you can quote me."

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