Except that we're not. According to the Law School Admission Council, about 68,000 students applied for spots in this fall's entering class. Almost half way through the current admission cycle, it looks like about 53,000 students will apply for the fall 2013 class. When did law schools last see that number of applicants?
Not in any year since 1983, the earliest year for which I can find data. For that fall, ABA-accredited law schools chose among 71,755 applicants--and there were only 173 accredited schools that year. The lowest number of applicants recorded during the last thirty years was in 1985, when only 60,338 people competed for 40,796 spots. At this point in the admission cycle, it's hard to believe that applicants for fall 2013 will top 60,000--or even 55,000.
So what year are we returning to? I hope we're not going back further than 1955, the year I was born. I would find that very confusing. And while we're indulging this fantasy that applicant numbers are merely "re-setting" or "returning to historical levels," let's remember that no one is talking about re-setting tuition to those earlier levels.
When 60,338 people applied to law school in fall 1985, the median tuition at a private school was $7,385. Median in-state tuition at public law schools was just $1,792. If those figures had risen with inflation, they would be $15,801 at private schools today and $3,834 at public ones. Instead, the median sticker price at private schools is two-and-a-half times as high, while it's five times higher at public institutions.
Now here's the real kicker: NALP has just published graphs showing that the median reported salary for full-time entry level jobs (those held nine months after graduation) has fallen back to 1985 levels when adjusted for inflation. That figure, of course, is for graduates who were lucky enough to land full-time jobs; just 69.8% of 2011 grads reported a full-time job of any kind. The other 30% may have been worse off than if they'd time traveled back to 1985.( Update: [LP] Only a little more than half of the 69.8 2011 grads who were reported to have full-time jobs had reported salaries.)
So do the math. In constant dollars, law school costs two-and-a-half to five times more than it did in 1985. Yet the degree offers a 1985-level starting salary for the average graduate--if that graduate can find a full-time job. How many people will apply for that deal?
Updated: Here is a link to applicant volume dating back to 1983. These are scanned from a hard-copy ABA-LSAC Guide.