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.