In 2017, Duke undergraduates showed an increased interest in applying to law school and medical school from previous years. 

Despite the recent rise in law school applicants, Gerald Wilson—senior associate dean and the University's prelaw advisor—said that last year, only about 14 percent of Duke undergraduates were applying to law school as opposed to 20 percent four years prior. The number of students interested in medical school, however, has been more stable. Donna Kostyu, associate dean and prehealth advisor, noted that the number of Duke undergraduates applying to medical school has not decreased.

“There used to be the idea that if you don’t know what you want to do, go to law school and you can always get a job,” he said.

2017 saw the rise of law school applicants for the first time in recent years—133 students applied to law school in 2016 compared to 146 applicants in 2017. Wilson said he believed that the trend had “bottomed out” in 2016 and that there would likely be an increase in the number of applicants in future years.

The law school trend isn’t particular to Duke but is rather a reflection of the national trend, Wilson said. He noted that the University has not made any efforts to deliberately promote law as a career path for students considering law school admissions.

“As prelaw adviser, one of my jobs is to find out if people really want law school or if somebody else wants law school for them,” he said. “I would never go out recruiting people to go to law school, but if people want to go to law school, I would certainly encourage them and work with them. I will point out the advantages of a legal education and a law degree, but I say ‘you have to figure out if that’s right for you.’”

The Law School Admissions Council—a non-profit organization of more than 200 law schools, including Duke Law—reported that 56,500 students applied to law schools nationwide in 2016, a drop from 2010, when the number of applicants was 87,900.

Medical schools have experienced a gradual upswing of applicants during that same period. The Association for American Medical Colleges reported 52,549 applicants to medical schools in 2016 compared to 42,268 in 2010. At Duke, Andrea Lanahan, director of admissions at the School of Medicine, noted that the upward “trend is real” and credited it in part to the outreach efforts.

“We already have too many applicants in my opinion,” she said. “However, we still feel it’s good and it’s important because Duke is being noticed as a potential school that all people think that they could attend, and that’s what we want.”

Despite the increase in law school applicants in the past year at Duke, Wilson said he does not anticipate the number of students applying to law school to reach what it was seven or eight years ago, pointing to three “inhibiting factors” that he believed would prevent a full recovery in applications—technology, students “drifting” into law school and the debt load.

In the past, people required lawyers to perform certain entry level duties, such as drafting wills, but can now go online to fulfill their requirements. Wilson said that due to the decreased workload, law firms require fewer lawyers to operate.

Additionally, Wilson, who has advised prelaw students for years, noted that fewer students are “drifting” into the profession, in part as a reflection of the smaller job market.

“One of the things I dealt with over the years was not people wanting to go to law school, but people drifting into law school. They couldn’t think of what else to do,” Wilson said. “They’re not doing that anymore.”

The issue of the debt load stems out of the first two factors, Wilson said, noting that students are increasingly unwilling to “pile on another debt load for law school” on top of their undergraduate debt load.

Despite the declining job market, Wilson said there is a “countervailing force” that allows the number of applicants to rise steadily. There is an expanding need for lawyers in various fields where they were not previously needed, he said, noting the technology industry as an example. Still, this won’t be enough to reach the 56 percent increase in applicants needed nationally to achieve the peak figures of the past decade.

“I don’t know what the limit’s going to be, but I don’t see a quantum leap,” Wilson said.