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In late February, Kaplan Test Prep released their annual law school admissions officers survey, an analysis that attempts to measure student interest in attending law school. After years of decline, Kaplan reported an increase of over 4,000 applicants. The cause, they reported, was the chaotic state of the political climate.
In a survey of 121 different law schools, encompassing some of the top 50 in the nation as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, about 87 percent of those surveyed reported the current U.S. political climate was a critical factor in their decision to attend law school.
Anthony Coloca, Kaplan’s director of pre-law programs, was confident their findings were more than circumstantial. In a second survey of law school students, 45 percent agreed politics were a significant component of their decision. Furthermore, 57 percent said they planned to use their degree to advocate for public policy concerns they felt strongly about.
“We’ve been doing the survey for a long time,” Coloca said. “We always want to know what’s going on, what the trends are among law schools, and their admissions officers and the students are a great source of that. It wasn’t just a hunch — we found that both students and law school admissions officers thought the same thing — politics were a significant factor.”
University of Michigan Law School student Julia Adams became interested in law at a young age, but she was unsure which area of law to pursue. As escalating conflicts over immigration began to unravel, Adams said she observed how attorneys helped victims navigate through the immigration system.
“Through my previous experiences, I witnessed how the law can be one of the greatest tools in the fight for justice — but my view of justice has been transformed through learning about the systemic inequities in place in the United States,” Adams said. “The system is clearly stacked against minority groups and the poor. My prior experiences helped me understand how lawyers can empower indigent clients and help them navigate complex systems to better support their needs. I feel driven to use my education and abilities in service of others, particularly indigent youth.”
Similarly, for Public Health junior Caleb Hogeterp, vice president of pre-law fraternity Beta Alpha Rho, his interest in the law increased following President Trump’s election. Hogeterp felt a call to action through ongoing negotiations regarding healthcare access and affordability.
“Law was always more of a pathway for me to advocate for issues I’m passionate about in all sorts of systems, more than loving the legal system itself,” Hogeterp said. “The Trump presidency was definitely a deciding factor in the way I view civic duty, but not the only factor. What kept drawing me to law was how many legal arguments made by both the Trump presidency and other Republicans to abolish the Affordable Care Act fell through when they didn’t hold legal water.”
On Ann Arbor’s campus specifically, law school interest increased by 9 percent following Trump’s election, according to Sarah Zearfoss, assistant dean of the Law School.
“A lot of people in their application specifically talked about Trump and about being inspired to go to law school based on changes in the political atmosphere, some of which named Trump, some of which were more general but didn’t name any particular actor,” Zearfoss said. “I definitely see a lot more people talking a lot about politics in their application than before Trump. People are inspired by all sorts of things — all kinds of things, personal things — but they didn’t talk about politics that much before.”
Not only did the Kaplan survey find politics are compelling students to pursue a career in law, but they also found students’ political beliefs influenced their choice of school. About 46 percent reported that they valued an institution that they thought aligned with their core political and social beliefs. However, Zearfoss stressed the importance of collaboration between those with divergent opinions.
“We think that it’s an important part of legal education that you interact with people with different views,” Zearfoss said. “No litigation occurs between people who agree with each other. It is important to be able to understand how different viewpoints operate, how different people think, and be able to communicate productively that way.”
Although a motivation to take political action can be an influential factor in deciding whether or not to go to law school, Kaplan urges students to be cautious, as politics are just one aspect of the profession.
“There’s lots of reason to attend law school — the primary reason should be you want to practice law,” Coloca said. “Law school admissions officers are always pointing out that caring about politics alone is generally not strong enough a reason to attend law school.”
Mirroring these concerns, Zearfoss noted political changes happen more gradually than students might predict.
“On the one hand, the law can be a very powerful tool for change,” Zearfoss said. “On the other hand, the law is an incremental tool, and tends to be sort of slow moving and that can be very frustrating to people who come to law school and want to see very quick and immediate change. Law and politics are closely related but they are not the same thing, so you should not come expecting immediate change and action because of having legal skills.”
Because politics is an ever-changing environment, Zearfoss believes this spike will be short-lived.
“In general I would say there are ups and downs with law school applications — I’ve been doing this for almost two decades,” Zearfoss said. “… Some of (those cycles) are because people are temporarily inspired because of current events, and some of them are economics, like if the economy looks better or worse for lawyers or analogous types of degrees. So, yes, I will think there will always be changes. I don’t think this will be a long-term phenomenon.”
However, Cocola is not as convinced. He observes the United States’ long history of having leaders, administrators and officials whose background is in the law.
“Politics and law have been connected since the beginning of history,” Cocola said. “Throughout history, lawyers have had an influence on politics — the majority of our presidents started as lawyers. It’s one of the most common professions among members of Congress. (Alexander) Hamilton and Aaron Burr were lawyers. So politics and law have always gone hand in hand, it has for centuries. It’s not going away, it probably never will.”