At Loyola Law School

The campanile, designed by Frank Gehry, is reflected in the glass of the Chapel of the Advocate at Loyola Law School, which recently reduced its number of incoming students. (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times / September 2, 2003)

Loyola Law School administrators once justified accepting extra students or raising tuition because the market virtually guaranteed prospective attorneys a high-paying job after graduation.

But faced with growing alumni complaints that they can't find employment, Dean Victor Gold and other administrators decided this year to do something they had never done before: They accepted fewer students.

Loyola, southwest of downtown Los Angeles, enrolled 20 fewer applicants than last year, about an 5% drop — and a loss of about $1 million. The incoming 360 students are about 15% fewer than the school has averaged over the last decade, Gold said.

Loyola is one of a growing number of law schools, including the University of California Hastings College of the Law, Northwestern University and George Washington University, that are trimming class sizes. A 2012 survey conducted by Kaplan Test Prep found that 51% of law schools have reduced their incoming classes.

Law schools: An article in the Aug. 20 Section A about law schools accepting fewer students incorrectly said the 2012 first-year class at USC's Gould School of Law had nearly 30 fewer students than in 2011. It had 11 fewer students.

The move comes amid a number of factors affecting law schools and students, including an overall reduction in applicants, a dearth of available jobs and students who don't want to be saddled with huge debt from high tuition.

In addition, some administrators are trying to accept fewer students with low entrance exam scores and grade-point averages who could drag down schools' important rankings in U.S. News & World Report.

The trend toward lower numbers of students began a few years ago. In 2011, fewer than 50,000 students started their first year in a juris doctor program, 7% less than the year before, according to the Law School Admission Council.

In the 2011-12 academic year, about 130,000 LSATs were given — the lowest number in more than a decade.

In California, which has about 21 accredited law schools, the first-year class at USC's Gould School of Law shrank by nearly 30 students last year, while UCLA's is about 15 students smaller this year compared to last.

"It's common sense," said Brian Z. Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has written extensively about the business of law schools. "People know that a lot of graduates are not doing well and that [law school] is a huge expense, so they question if it's really worth it."

Loyola administrators made the move to cut class sizes soon after the school fell 17 places — from 51st to 68th —in the most recent U.S. News & World Report's rankings.

Much of Loyola's drop is due to California's soft job market, which meant graduates couldn't find work, Gold said.

"Reality has caught up to higher education," said Gold, who has served as dean since 2009. "The job market is still very slow, and we have a moral obligation not to just take tuition dollars and then turn a blind eye when our graduates can't find jobs."

Prospective students look closely at national rankings to decide where to apply, and schools typically use them for publicity and to attract donors. These listings take into account schools' selectivity, job placement and bar exam passage rates, among other things.

"Schools are in a tough financial position. Rankings should not drive students away or toward schools, but they do," said Paul L. Caron, a law professor at Pepperdine University. "So small moves can have very significant consequences."

Gold acknowledged that Loyola's move was partly to protect the school's image — "I wouldn't be honest if I said rankings don't matter," he said — but added that it wasn't his main motivation to drop class size.

Universities that fall below the top 20 in law school rankings are more likely to see enrollment declines, while schools at the bottom of the list "will continue to take as many as they can enroll," Tamanaha said. Others say the top-tier schools are not as adversely affected.