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Law school applications are collapsing

[ 63 ] December 13, 2012 |

In 2010 87,900 people applied to ABA law schools. This number was down 12.6% from the all-time high of 100,600 six years earlier — a fact that ought to have served as an early warning signal to law schools. After all, in 2008 and 2009 the economy was in the deepest recession since the 1930s, which should have have driven applications to professional school in general and law school in particular to new highs.

In 2011 David Segal published a series of critical articles in the New York Times regarding the economics of legal education, which provoked mostly cries of outrage from inside legal academia. Kyle McEntee and Patrick Lynch at the Law School Transparency project continued to run into a stone wall when they asked law schools to disclose something resembling actual employment and salary statistics for recent graduates. In short, denial remained the order of the day.

Meanwhile applications fell by 10.7% — yet law schools admitted almost exactly the same number of students (55,800 v. 55,900 in 2004) as they had seven years earlier, when they had had 22,100 more applicants to choose from.

By the fall of 2011, serious cracks began to appear in legal academia’s complacent facade. A year’s worth of bad publicity, capped by the imminent publication of Brian Tamanaha’s measured but all the more devastating indictment Failing Law Schools, had enabled LST and others to help convince a couple of US senators to write letters to the ABA Section of Legal Education, suggesting that this august body might want to consider being a little more forthcoming with employment data. Suggestions from senators have a way of getting the attention of bureaucrats, and lo and behold by next spring the ABA was for the first time publishing some useful school-specific graduate employment numbers.

Applications, not coincidentally, continued a sharp downward trend. By January of this year it became clear they would fall even more sharply from the previous year than they had between 2010 and 2011. In the end they were down another 13.7%. With the publication of the class of 2011′s fairly catastrophic employment figures, denial began to give way to serious concern.

Now comes word that applications in this admissions cycle appear to be in something like free fall. As of December 7th, they are down 24.6% from the same time last year, while the total number of applicants has declined by 22.4% year over year. These numbers suggest that law schools will have a total of somewhere between 52,000 and 53,000 applicants to choose from in this cycle, i.e., slightly more than half as many as in 2004, when there were 188 ABA accredited law schools (there are 201 at the moment, with an emphasis on “at the moment”).

To put that number in perspective, law schools admitted 60,400 first year JD students two years ago. Since a significant percentage of applicants are unwilling to consider enrolling at any school below a certain hierarchical level, and/or will decline to enroll at certain other schools without receiving massive discounts on the advertised tuition price, these numbers portend fiscal calamity for more than a few schools. But out of that calamity will come the beginnings of a more rational and just system of legal education for the next generation of lawyers.

Comments (63)

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  1. mpowell says:

    Looks like the problem will be correcting faster than I expected. Turns out, with even minimally decent information, potential students can actually make somewhat informed decisions.

    • Oh the Humanities says:

      The number of students entering PhD programs in Humanities/Social Science each year suggests otherwise.

    • Oh the Humanities says:

      The numbers of students entering PhD programs in English and History each year suggests otherwise.

      • L2P says:

        Complain when the average liberal art PHDs apply thinking they’re going to be millionaires.

        People LIKE being theorizing about arts, humanities and history. They actually want to do that, even if the pay is pretty meager.

        Very few people say to themselves, “Man, I’d really, really love to know ALL ABOUT how venue works. And I’d KILL to know the various ways you can hold title to real property. And how to create EVERY LAST TYPE of business entity that America has created. And how the state divvies up community property? BLISS! I don’t care if I NEVER MAKE A DIME from this crap!”

        • Brandon C. says:

          I actually work in Mortgage and think its pretty interesting. I actually didn’t apply to law school after a year in mortgage because after reading Paul’s posts it seemed like a bad financial decision.

          But I think I’m the exception to the rule lol.

          • JoyfulA says:

            I enjoyed commercial mortgage acquisition work, but that was running the numbers on proffered mortgages to see if they worked, reading the leases to check for funny stuff, walking the property for inspection, reading plats, figuring out how to sell it to the board—that sort of thing. The legal aspects of mortgages must have been deadly dull (as were our corporate lawyers).

        • KJF says:

          I would assume the average liberal arts PhD student still thinks they will secure a tenure track position at a decent uni.
          Is a well compensated legal position that much rarer per new graduate?

          • Paul Campos says:

            Is this actually a realistic expectation? Aren’t only a small minority of liberal arts PhDs actually getting tenure track jobs, let alone at decent universities, liberally defined?

            • quincy says:

              Is it any more of an unrealistic expectation than securing a high paying legal position is for graduates of non T-14 schools?

              • TribalistMeathead says:

                I’d say your case is more likely than Paul’s. I worked for the DC office of an NYC white-shoe firm and we hired a graduate of GMU Law School who worked for the firm while she was in school. And I have the feeling there are back-door routes like that that don’t exist in academia.

                • mch says:

                  LP2: “The bigger difference is law school is a grind that prepares you for a career that no one would do if it didn’t pay oodles of money.”

                  Don’t know where this is coming from. I know quite a few lawyers, not one of whom went into it for the money. Of course, many people do, but that’s their problem, perhaps?

  2. Thom McClendon says:

    This is presumably a sign of improved employment prospects for college grads. Am I right in assuming that law school applications soared in 2008-10?

    • Paul Campos says:

      No. Click the first link in the post for the numbers.

      Unfortunately this probably doesn’t have anything to do with supposedly improving job prospects for college graduates.

      • mpowell says:

        I don’t know why you say unfortunate. But of course it can’t have an impact yet because only applications have declined significantly. We are now getting to the part where enrollment will actually decline significantly (or maybe costs will start to come down instead?) and then you’ll finally get better non-cyclic employment figures.

        • Warren Terra says:

          I think you’re misunderstanding: the suggestion from McLendon was that better employment prospects for recent acquirers of an undergraduate degree was causing fewer of them to try to hide from the job market for three years by going to law school; Campos responded (I think) by suggesting those employment prospects recent in fact much better. You appear to be discussing that a reduced number of Law graduates will improve the job prospects of law graduates; this would seem likely, but would take time, and so far all we have is fewer law school applicants.

  3. Keaaukane says:

    Does a decline in applications mean anything? It’s a question of how many get accepted, and that seems to be constant. Fewer applicants may just mean the law schools will have to lower their standards to maintain current enrollment.

  4. I wonder how rational the law school system can become. Are there universities that will discontinue their programs? Will the bottom feeders move on to different scams?

    • Anonymous says:

      I doubt that Harvard Law is getting fewer applications, or that they’ll have trouble filling their class even if they do. Paul has posted earlier about plunging applications to marginal schools, and hopefully they’re getting hit even harder than the mean. It would be handy to know, but the worst offenders aren’t going to be voluntarily posting bad news about their own programs.

      • Right, but the problem isn’t Harvard. It’s the staggering number of law schools that aren’t either US News Tier I, or priced in a realistic way. I mean, a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_law_schools_in_the_United_States”>just look at the number of them. By my count there are ten states that have one law school. Everyone else has at least two, and most have quite a few more than that. Only the ones that are part of a state’s university system are going to make economic sense for most potential students, but the rest aren’t going away as far as I can tell.

        • Juniper says:

          I went to one of those “not priced in a realistic way” law schools. Granted, I had 75% ride the first year and full ride the final two. However, our tuition is equal to Harvard’s yet our ranking is near 100 (and has dropped by ten since I started 2.5 years ago). I hate to say it, but my school should fail, as should many others in the area. We have five (not counting several non-ABA schools) within 30 minutes of my home.

          I have seen a lot of things in my short experience that make me believe my school is one of many that are borderline scam, especially when you look at our bar pass rate. My heart breaks for my fellow students stuck with over $200K in debt with a JD from a school no one cares about anymore. I hope the system comes out of this mess healthier, with more transparency and less scams.

      • Anonymous says:

        1. Like everyone else, Harvard IS getting fewer applications. In fact, so is Yale.
        http://abovethelaw.com/2011/03/law-school-applications-down-at-yale/

        2. The most pronounced decline has been among 170+ and especially 175+ LSAT scorers.
        http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/the-wrong-people-have-stopped-applying-to-law-school/255685/

        3. If you add 1 and 2 together…. Having a 1L class of over 550, Harvard will have serious trouble maintaining its ridiculous LSAT median. Though the median for the class of 2015 hasn’t been disclosed yet, the 25th/75th LSAT percentiles had each dropped from the previous year, as did the GPA.
        http://www.top-law-schools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=191337

        This cycle will be MUCH worse. No one is immune to the decline in applications.

  5. Aaron B. says:

    I’m one of those 40,000 missing applicants. You convinced me not to go, Campos.

  6. Nate W. says:

    What makes this post even better is that directly below it, AdChoices put an advertisement for Cooley Law School… :)

  7. [...] *Something something “A good start”: Law school applications are collapsing. [...]

  8. [...] Law School Bubble Posted at 4:30 on December 13, 2012 by Andrew Sullivan Paul Campos thinks it's bursting: Now comes word that applications in this admissions cycle appear to [...]

  9. Logistics says:

    I’m familiar with an unranked law school that has seen admissions drop by thirty percent over the last year. The faculty has made hard decisions, including not extending offers to promising professors and giving buyouts to tenured faculty. The curriculum is being redesigned to meet the needs of the students (instead of slavishly adhering to the Socratic case-book method for three years) and to offer significantly more practical experience. A good case could be made that this law school should close. A good case could be made that this law school is responding to market pressure to transform legal education into a useful thing instead of an extended academic exercise. In the end, the lower tiered schools who come out of this will be better educational institutions, and the top schools will continue to adhere to a bloated professor-oriented curriculum centered around unread scholarship.

  10. MW says:

    Like mentioned the amount of applications are down but how many are being accepted into law school. I got to think the numbers are still about the same.

  11. TribalistMeathead says:

    I was a career paralegal until a year ago, and it always shocked me when recent college grads would come to the firm I worked at, work there for a year and a half as a paralegal, and still want to go to law school.

    The only explanation I could come up with was “since they only worked at one law firm, they didn’t know which were issues for lawyers that were unique to that firm and which were issues for lawyers that were common across the industry.”

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Heh. I am an career paralegal right now. What I have learned is that biglaw sucks. I would have to be in dire straits before I considered working in one again. Small law, on the other hand, depends on the individuals. Work for a jerk and it sucks, too. Work for a mensch and it is a good job.

      As for those recent grads, the best interpretation is that their plan was to go to law school, followed by being an associate in a big firm long enough to pay off their debts, and then go do what they really wanted to do. The next best interpretation is that they had dollar signs in their eyes and simply didn’t care about anything else. If they really thought “yeah, this place sucks, but the others must be better” then they indeed were doomed to disappointment.

      I considered law school about a decade ago, and concluded it didn’t make economic or personal sense. I knew perfectly well that biglaw sucks, but I also knew that it was necessary to make the numbers work. Finally, I was in a room of freshly minted J.D.s temping as document reviewers. Oddly enough, I was their supervisor. I saw their job searches and financial situations. It wasn’t pretty.

      The conclusion was that the best possible outcome of going to law school was years of misery as a biglaw associate, while the more likely outcome was far worse.

      • TribalistMeathead says:

        Yes, the “I’ll work my tail off for 5 years, pay off my loans, and do something I really want to do” attitude is still pervasive, but it seems like it’s a hell of a lot less likely than it was 10 years ago.

        Fortunately the timeline worked out much better for me – I considered going to law school, decided I didn’t like what being a first-year would entail, decided I was too old to go, and then 2006 happened and I discovered I REALLY didn’t want to be a contract attorney.

        I absolutely found boutiques to be a hell of a lot more tolerable than big firms. I also found first-years to be a lot easier to deal with in general post-2006, when they were too busy thanking their lucky stars they had a job to be jerks. Your point about it depending on who was running the firm is a good one, though – if they have a strong enough cult of personality, it can be almost as intolerable as biglaw.

  12. Graeme says:

    The strange thing is, LSAT prep appears to be growing. I say this as an LSAT instructor, and as someone who works with an online LSAT company (7Sage). Both locally and online, we’ve seen growth in demand. Conversations with other companies bear this out.

    My theory is that applicants have figured out that only *some* schools are worth going to, and they’re trying harder to get into those. Otherwise I can’t account for the apparent increase in LSAT students amidst a decline of both applicants and LSAT takers.

    • Warren Terra says:

      I’d say your theory is sound.

      We see on television every day (in scripted dramas) that a successful lawyers is a cool thing to be: sharp suits, big money, dramatic courtroom speeches, civil rights or victims’ grievances to be defended, etcetera. People aren’t going to give up the idea that such a wonderful life can be theirs.

      But they also see the umbers, and realize that getting into a lower-tier law school won’t get them the prize they seek. Hence: more strenuous campaigns to matriculate with the elite.

  13. Tyler says:

    Question: With regard to the ABA compiling and presenting useful employment information on a school-by-school basis, where are they getting these numbers? I checked my school’s, and the employment rates from 2010 are very, very good–and I’m not saying that I doubt them. But I will say: I graduated in 2008, and no one has ever asked me what my employment status is. I find this odd.

  14. Jackie says:

    My daughter graduated from Berkeley in 2006 and became one of only two grads from her class who went into solo practice. She argues that the lack of jobs for lawyers is an artificial scarcity caused by lawyers pricing themselves out of the reach of ordinary people in the middle class. She discusses this in her book, Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy, published this year by the ABA. I recommend you read it. http://apps.americanbar.org/abastore/index.cfm?pid=1620513&section=main&fm=Product.AddToCart

    • RustyJohn says:

      Typically everyone in my class who became a sole practitioner did so because they couldn’t get a job anywhere else. Half of those that did are no longer practicing law because they can’t pay the bills. It has nothing to do with pricing out the middle class-it has to do with having enough work to pay the bills. When you have a $1000 a month student loan payment, a $750 per month office lease, bar dues, paying someone to answer the phones it doesn’t leave much left to eat or pay a mortgage. Certain attorney fees are ridiculously low in some practice areas and geographic areas.

      • Jackie says:

        Maybe if the solos were offering what the people want and need, they would make it financially. And what they want and need is changing. You think the ABA would seek out and publish a book by someone who was just clinging by her fingertips?

    • Juniper says:

      First, yay for a mother supporting her daughter! Way cute. I’m going to look into her book.

      I plan to go solo as I have a paying job already not in law but in my spare time, I’ll contract with firms in my rare niche of expertise. I also, as I mentioned in a previous post, have no debt because of scholarships and stipends.

      Re: the “$750 a month for an office”, the successful solos I’ve met, and I’ve been seeking them out since I started law school, do not have offices. With online tech, they rarely need to meet with clients and many meetings can be done in five star hotel lobbies. If true privacy is needed, one can rent a private space for a short time, or in the bay area at least, many solos go in together on a $750/mo space they use a few days a month.

      There are options. Granted, if one went straight to lawschool from undergrad, those options may not be there. But if you had a prior career with proven expertise, you can make a decent go at it.

  15. [...] Law school applications are collapsing – Lawyers, Guns. Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  16. [...] law school graduates are actually getting, the idea of going to law school is starting to become less appealing, especially when you start to consider the ridiculous cost of law school. Now comes word that [...]

  17. [...] about law school, you need to know that this is a game of number. If recent law school application statistics are any indication, then maybe you prospective law students out there understand that the only winning move is not to [...]

  18. Ryan says:

    I think any time you lose credibility and the prominence of going to Law school you are sure to lower the overall reputational advantage of being able to say “I went to law school” and now I have a pick of the litter job opportunities.

  19. Lakawak says:

    Well..in Back to the Future Part II, we already know that lawyers will be banned by the year 2015. And it will make the justice system move much more swiftly.

    So why bother going to law school if, by the time you get out, you won’t be able to practice law?

  20. [...] information here. I got a particularly glossy and garish bit of law porn in my mailbox yesterday, from American [...]

  21. [...] year at this time I noted that law school applications were in something of a free fall. LSAC has just released its first data [...]

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