by Katy Hopkins

Tuition has risen for the 2010-2011 academic year at law schools across the country, even as jobs in the industry disappear by the month. The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 4,000 jobs in the legal sector were cut in June and July, capping a 12-month stretch in which the field lost about 17,000 positions. Summer associate programs, often a stable track to future employment for law students, also fell victim to a sour economy.

But more law school admission tests were administered in the most recent testing year than ever before. From June 2009 to February 2010, there were 171,514 requests for the LSAT, a 13.3 percent increase from the previous year, says Wendy Margolis, communications director at the nonprofit Law School Admission Council, which administers the test.

With demand and costs climbing while job prospects diminish, what's happening to the value of a legal education? The answer is debatable, at least for the J.D. credential itself, says William Henderson, a professor at the Indiana University -- Bloomington Maurer School of Law. "I think [law school] makes you a better problem solver, but . . . is it worth $50,000 a year?" he says. "For signaling value, the answer is increasingly 'no.' "

Aiming high. Henderson notes that in this economic climate, even a degree from a top law school does not guarantee a job. But Ann Levine, a law school admissions consultant, says that dimming job prospects and increasingly high tuition have yet to deter those in her nationwide client pool from seeking elite placements.

"I had thought people would be more concerned about scholarships and willing to let go of ranking a little bit. I was wrong," Levine says. "People want to generally go to the best law school they can get into, regardless of costs."

One of Levine's clients, Oriana Pietrangelo, turned down several full rides in favor of a partial scholarship this fall to Notre Dame Law School, a highly ranked school whose "name goes fairly far," Pietrangelo says.

"It would have been nice to not have any debt," she says. "But I feel like I'm more likely to have a better job and higher paying salary going to Notre Dame as opposed to somewhere else."

While "everyone talks about the cost of tuition," Levine says, "it's actually not going to impact demand greatly because I think people see it as somewhat inevitable and beyond their control."

Reasons for tuition increases vary by school, though the pattern is that tuition rarely goes down. Instead, relatively small tuition increases are touted as big news. At Vanderbilt University Law School, tuition will increase 2.7 percent to $44,900 before fees, the smallest uptick in 44 years, according to the school.

Public law schools are feeling the heat of tight state budgets. Funding for higher education has been slashed in at least 43 financially strapped states, according to a report from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Higher education funding in Texas, for example, was reduced by $73 million, and public universities in Indiana saw a $150 million decrease this year. The budget pressures are pushing tuition upward.

Still, law school officials voice continued support for ambitious students choosing a legal education, especially when the curricula embrace the changing tides of the professional market.

"I think that law school remains a great investment because of the kinds of analytical skills law school teaches," says Paul Schiff Berman, dean of Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, "whether you end up practicing at a law firm, or going into business, or going into government."

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Law School: Rising Demand and Rising Tuition