The law is becoming trendy again. Attribute it to the recent Supreme Court hearings, to disillusionment with Wall Street, to the popularity of the television show ``L.A. Law'' - no one seems to know for sure. But whatever the reason, law school applications indicate that interest in becoming a lawyer is growing.
Indeed, after five years of declining popularity, the nation's law schools appear headed for one of the biggest application booms since the mid-1970s.
Filings for the fall term are up 10 to 20 percent at most schools and as much as a third for some.
``I haven't talked to any school that's down,'' says Beth O'Neil of the Law School Admissions Council, a Pennsylvania-based group. Adds the assistant director of admissions at the Stanford University Law School, where filings are running 25 percent ahead of last year: ``It is really unbelievable.''
The upsurge doesn't necessarily mean there will be more people preparing legal briefs three years from now. Most of the nation's 175 accredited law schools keep the size of their entering classes relatively constant, no matter how many applications they get. The increase does, however, mean that the schools can be more selective in deciding who gets the seats.
Nor is it yet certain what the final application tally will be. The filing deadline for some law schools was Feb. 1; most others will stop accepting applications in the next month or two. Yet early indications are that applications will be up this year by a near record number. Through Jan. 22, filings at accredited law schools nationwide were running 18 percent ahead of last year, according to the admissions council.
Other indicators have been strong as well. The number of people taking the law school admissions test was up in the three testing periods in 1987 - in one case 26 percent. Many schools have run out of application forms and had to go back to the printer two and three times. Forums held for prospective law students have been heavily attended.
``We've had record numbers of packages coming in at the last minute,'' says Joy Segars, assistant dean for placement at the University of Texas Law School.
If the trend holds, it would mark a significant turnaround. With the exception of a modest increase last year, the number of people applying to law schools has been dropping steadily. Some 16 percent fewer people filed in 1985-86 than in 1981-82. Not surprisingly, the queues are longest at the top-tier schools. Applications to the University of Michigan are running 28 percent ahead of last year, while Harvard is up 20 percent and the University of California, Berkeley, 15 percent.
Yet the enthusiasm appears extend to lesser-known schools. Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., has seen filings coming in 40 percent over last year's pace, while the University of Toledo Law School is up 10 percent.
Though no one is certain what's behind the interest, enough theories exist to fill a tome on torts. Foremost among them is the economy. Traditionally, when the economy is weak or uncertain, many people go back to school to improve their chances of getting a job.
The recent stock market ``crash'' has also soured some students' views of investment banking and business careers. Lawyer salaries haven't hurt things, either. Associates at some big New York firms now start out at $60,000 to $80,000. ``First-year associate salaries are really up,'' says Lawrence Raful, associate dean of the University of Southern California Law School.
Not all the enrollment seekers are motivated by money. Many mention a desire to do public-service work. ``The applications are full of remarks about a desire to do something other than make money,'' says Allan Stillwagon, assistant law dean at the University of Michigan.
Despite the glut of lawyers in the early 1980s, job placement of law school graduates has been improving in recent years.
Another reason for the interest is increased visibility of the law. Admissions officials cite the bicentennial celebration of the United States Constitution last year, recent hearings on Supreme Court nominees, and enthusiasm for ``the'' TV show.
``Everybody is attributing it to `L.A. Law,''' says Joyce Curll, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at Harvard Law School. Adds Mr. Raful: ``It has nothing to do with the practice of law. But it is entertaining.''
With applications up, a few schools that reduced entering-class sizes in recent years so they could be more selective may now increase seats. Most, however, are watching to see if the current upsurge is part of a trend, or a blip on the TV screen.