Medical school a cure for glut of lawyers in job market


First, "E.R." bumped "L.A. Law" from the TV lineup.

Now, life is mimicking art.

Faced with a glut of lawyers in the job market, undergraduates in record numbers are forgoing jurisprudence for a dose of medicine and business acumen.

Applications to medical schools nationwide have been steadily rising while they dropped off dramatically at law schools this year.

At the same time, the bust in business school enrollments, forecast since the stock market crash of 1987, is now a boom. Some master's of business administration programs are seeing increases of as much as 39 percent in applicants this year.

The reason for the trends, students say, can be summed up in two words -- the economy.

"I don't want to go to school for 10 years without a guarantee of getting a job," said Jason Vargas, 23, of San Jose, Calif., a first-year medical student at Stanford University. "We're going to be living longer in the future. There will always be a need for health care."

Added his classmate, Ana Franco, 25, from San Diego: "A doctor will always have a job."

Stanford, a good barometer of the way national educational winds are blowing, saw a 9.5 percent increase in the number of applicants vying for 86 spots in the medical school this September. Business school applications jumped 24 percent, surprising even admissions officials. Meanwhile, interest in the law school fell by 18.9 percent.

"The market for lawyers is not as strong as it was five or 10 years ago, and maybe that's hitting home," said Faye Deal, the Stanford Law School admissions director. "For the class that entered in 1991, we had an all-time high of 6,006 applicants. Very honestly, the 4,300 we received this year is much more manageable. If the caliber of applicants had suffered we would certainly have been concerned."

Economists say the students' forecasts of the future are right on the money. While the demand for lawyers and judicial workers is expected to level off by the next century, the need for medical professionals is expected to increase more rapidly as the U.S. population grays.

"Employment in law firms in California has been falling for the last three years," said Ted Gibson, the state's chief economist. "But, in medicine, the aging population is going to be a fact of life for the next 30 or 40 years, especially after 2010, when the first baby boomers turn 65."

Students' fears over the job market may be guiding them onto paths they believe are more secure, despite the recent threat to physicians' incomes by insurers who set fee schedules, increasing government regulations, and the push into managed-care programs.

"When you have a professional degree, particularly for doctors, the consensus is there are jobs out there," said Martha Frase-Blunt, spokeswoman for the Association of American Medical Colleges Application Service in Washington. "For the most part, it's a safe, secure career."

The graduate business degree's sudden rise in popularity has proven even more surprising to educators. After the sharp rise in the number of MBA graduates in the early 1980s, the numbers applying for entry dropped after the close of the decade.

"One of the nice things about business school is that you can do anything," said David Irons, the spokesman for the University of California, Berkeley business school, which has seen a 39 percent increase in applicants this year. "You can start your own business. You can go to Paris or Saigon by picking the right company. You can go to work for a government agency or nonprofit using your management skills. It literally opens doors."

The rise may also be attributed to the fact that many business schools have reformed their curriculum. In response to criticisms that the schools were too narrowly focused on finance, many added such course topics as globalization, technology management, workplace diversity and environmental management, according to Charles Hickman, spokesman for the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business.

The downturn in the job market for aspiring lawyers was more expected than the sudden demand for MBAs. According to the National Association for Law Placement, 25 percent of 1994 law school graduates are unemployed or not working in the profession. But, despite the statistics, some students are sticking with the field and bucking the trend.

"I had heard all of the negatives, not only about lawyers, but about how there are so many people in law school, so many people becoming attorneys and not enough work," said Naomi Dalzell-Martinez, 22, of San Jose.

She was accepted by Santa Clara University School of Law this year and plans to specialize in biotechnology law.

"But I really wanted to go into law. And I believe that if you work to make something of your career, you won't just be one of the crowd."

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