The lessening interest in law school can be seen at flagship public universities in Missouri and elite private schools such as Washington University in St. Louis, which reports a 12 percent enrollment decline.

New student enrollment at the University of California-Los Angeles is down 16 percent, while the University of Michigan reports a 14 percent decrease in applicants. WashU, UCLA and Michigan are top 25 schools in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings.

“This year, people realize that this is not a one-year economic decline,” said Sarah Zearfoss, assistant law dean and admissions director at Michigan. “It seems to be a much longer-term problem.”

That’s not necessarily bad, she said. Long considered a refuge for the hyper-ambitious, law schools may now be attracting more committed students, said Zearfoss.

“Now that people are aware it’s not a cakewalk to get a big salary, they’re thinking more carefully and a little more rationally about making this choice,” she said.

Or, as Dessem put it, “That’s going to lead to a lot more satisfied lawyers down the road.”

That satisfaction could come without a fatter paycheck. According to the National Association for Law Placement, only slightly more than two-thirds of spring 2010 graduates had jobs requiring law licenses nine months later–the lowest mark since the industry group starting keeping count.

Overall, 87.4 percent of the class of 2010 had any sort of job nine months after graduation, a 15-year low.