Pritzker applications jumped amid tightening labor market, political zeal


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

The Pritzker School of Law. Law schools across the nation have been seeing an increase in applicants due to improved job market.

Pranav Baskar, Reporter

Sylvia Waghorne always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Today, she’s one of the thousands of students across the country applying to law school this admissions cycle, and with a stronger job market and a new wave of political energy, that number is only rising.

The chief executive officer of the Law School Admissions Council, Kellye Testy, said applications nationwide jumped 8 percent last year — the first sharp increase since the Great Recession. As close as Chicago, The Pritzker School of Law saw a 19 percent increase in applications last year, and Lynn Page, a pre-law adviser at Northwestern, said the number of pre-law appointment requests have doubled.

Testy said recent growth and a tighter labor market can explain part of the turnaround happening now. Over the past 50 years, trends in applications have reflected the ups and downs of the business cycle, she said.

“After the Great Recession, law schools nationwide experienced a sharp decline in the number of applicants over historic levels,” Testy said. “When the economy is doing better, there are more jobs, so people get more interested, and I think that’s what we’re sort of seeing now.”

Pritzker Law Professor Ezra Friedman said more economic activity leads to more deals, more companies, more mergers and more investments — and all of those things require lawyers.

By the same token, in the absence of economic growth, the law profession has historically suffered, Friedman said. During the lead-up to the recession, banks and mortgage companies rushed to proliferate shaky financial packages known as mortgage-backed securities. Friedman said producing those financial packages took a lot of legal work — lawyers had to write up tons of contracts and memos for each security; when the recession hit, that source of demand for lawyers suddenly shrunk. Add to that a new wave of layoffs as law firms scrambled to compete and the automation of discovery work, and it made for a grim portrait for lawyers of the time, Friedman said.

However, Testy said she views the current influx of applications as more than a temporary spike in line with the business cycle. She said the Trump administration has inspired more people to become lawyers, structurally changing the profession.

“We saw law become very visible in the public eye, and we saw young people really clamoring away to make the world a better place and to make change for law,” Testy said. “If you think back to when President Trump took office, almost immediately we had the immigration ban. And, for the first time in a long time, we saw lawyers on the front page of the newspaper in very positive lights. We saw chants at airports: ‘Let the lawyers in.’”

While Waghorne had already decided she would apply to law school by the time Trump took office, she said the administration further encouraged her to put herself out there.

“It definitely emboldened me, made me angrier, and more passionate,” Waghorne said. “People see what’s happening on the news and they want to do something about it”

Testy said she is hopeful that the gains law has seen this past year are part of a more permanent expansion of the legal sector.

“Our research shows that, overwhelmingly, it’s the passion for the common good and the passion for service that inspires people to pursue legal education,” Testy said. “Worries about climate justice, racial justice and economic justice are really at the forefront of our world right now — and those are all things that law has a very big role to play in.”

Danny Vesurai contributed reporting.

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