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The Cornell Law Mystery Continues (Or, Why CLS is Like Lady Gaga)

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  • The Cornell Law Mystery Continues (Or, Why CLS is Like Lady Gaga)

    Cornell is the Lady Gaga of the law-school world. Both are white hot, but the explanations behind each’s popularity don’t don’t fully add up.

    Let us explain: As we wrote last week, applications to Cornell Law School are up more than 50 percent from this year to last. In last week’s post, we quoted a dean at the law school, Richard Geiger, claiming he, along with others at Cornell, were scratching their heads over the rise. He could explain a 20 percent rise, perhaps, but not a 50 percent hike.

    Readers sent along a host of their own theories as to the reason behind the bump in Cornell’s numbers. Some attributed it to the school’s recent admits reportedly having lower GPAs than that of comparably ranked schools. Others pointed to the school’s good placement record within the New York BigLaw world. Still others credited Andy Bernard, of “The Office” fame.

    But do the higher ups at Cornell really have little explanation? We chatted Wednesday with the school’s dean, Stewart Schwab, himself a Michigan grad (and O’Connor clerk). We asked him if authorities had come any closer to solving the great Cornell riddle.

    Schwab first confirmed the news, that applications were, in fact, up 53 percent this year. Then he trotted out a number of theories to explain the momentous jump — one not seen at other top schools.

    He said perhaps applicants were increasingly realizing that the lawyering world is “two-tiered.” That is, “there’s Wall Street, and then there’s Main Street.” In Schwab’s mind, it might not make sense to “wait out the recession” in a school that doesn’t send students to “Wall Street” firms. With that in mind, perhaps students who might not otherwise get in to Cornell are sending off applications, in the hope they’ll just maybe, maybe get in.

    It might be working on the other side, as well, admitted Schwab. Perhaps students who might in a different year feel pretty confident of their chances at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia or Yale, etc., are casting a wider net, knowing that given the general bump might mean that more of those recent summa cum laude graduates might be testing the law school waters as well rather than trying their hand in the bleak Great American Work Force.

    But beyond that, he legitimately seemed puzzled. “I think maybe it’s a confluence of things,” he said. “I mean, Cornell is a great part to study law. Among the top schools, it offers a setting that is, Ann Arbor and perhaps Charlottesville excepted, comparably less expensive” than what the others offer. He mentioned that Cornell is a smaller school, so students get “individual attention,” that they’ve made “great faculty hires” in recent years, that the school has worked hard in recent years to “get the word out.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

    Some more data points: African-American applicants were up over 100 percent this year, and Latino applications spiked by over 50 percent.

    So what’s Cornell going to do with all this? For one thing, it’s not going to raise its class size, says Schwab. “Being smaller is a major part of what we’re about,” he says.

    Nor is he sending off letters to alumni guaranteeing a huge jump in the U.S. News & World Report ranking, despite that the application jump might cause a rise in a category or two. “The impact will be minor,” he says. “But hopefully the trend is reflective of some underlying improvements.”

    We expressed to Schwab our sense that we’d have expected a less expensive law school to be the Prom Queen of 2009, not Cornell, whose tuition is just about as high as anyone’s.

    To that, Schwab responded that he disagreed with some Law Blog comments questioning whether the elite schools were no longer worth their money. “I just don’t think there’s any way you can back that up,” he said. “If anything, it’s more important than ever to go to a top school. The large law firms can afford to be extremely selective.”

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