- - Monday, September 5, 2011

COLUMBIA, Mo. The days of top law school graduates having their pick of six-figure jobs at boutique firms - or at least being assured of putting their degrees to use - are over.

Postgraduate employment rates are at their lowest levels in 15 years. The typical student leaves school nearly $100,000 in debt. And after several years of recession-driven enrollment gains, applications to law schools nationwide are down nearly 10 percent this year.

The sobering statistics have prompted plenty of soul-searching in the legal academy, with calls for schools to provide more accurate job-placement data as well as efforts by some law schools to admit fewer students to avoid dumping a glut of newly minted J.D.s onto an unforgiving job market.

“The sense that one can go to law school and get rich quick, that it is the lottery ticket - those days are well past,” said law dean Larry Dessem at the University of Missouri, where first-year fall enrollment is down 11 percent and applications declined nearly 17 percent.

The lessening interest in law school can be seen at flagship public universities and elite private schools.

Washington University in St. Louis, which reports a 12 percent enrollment decline. New student enrollment at the University of California, Los Angeles is down 16 percent, while the University of Michigan reports a 14 percent decrease in applicants. All three are top-25 schools in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings.

“This year, people realize that this is not a one-year economic decline,” said Sarah Zearfoss, assistant law dean and admissions director at Michigan. “It seems to be a much longer-term problem.”

That’s not necessarily bad, she said. Long considered a refuge for the hyperambitious, law schools may now be attracting more committed students, Ms. Zearfoss said.

“Now that people are aware it’s not a cakewalk to get a big salary, they’re thinking more carefully and a little more rationally about making this choice,” she said.

Or, as Mr. Dessem put it, “That’s going to lead to a lot more satisfied lawyers down the road.”

That satisfaction could come without a fatter paycheck. According to the National Association for Law Placement, only slightly more than two-thirds of spring 2010 graduates had jobs requiring law licenses nine months later - the lowest mark since the industry group starting keeping count.

Overall, 87.4 percent of the class of 2010 had any sort of job nine months after graduation, a 15-year low.

Those figures include 11 percent working part-time and others holding temporary jobs. And the national median salary for new law school graduates has declined from $72,000 to $63,000 in the past year.

Several colleges recently have scrapped plans to build new law schools, including the University of Delaware and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.