The Strange Thing Happening in Law School Applications

It turns out fewer students are applying to law schools. For the last few years many journalists have written about the financial risk of law school. The recession caused the market for lawyers to collapse. So now those six-figure debt loads don’t look quite so manageable.

It looks like students are listening, but not quite in the way one might expect. I somewhat misguidedly predicted that this awareness of the crappiness of the law school market might be a good thing.

As I wrote back in September “a general decline in the number of applicants to law schools could eventually wreak havoc on America’s lower-tier law schools, which require a steady stream of students rejected from selective law schools in order to survive.” And then, in March, I said that things “seem to be moving in the right direction. If fewer students take the LSATs, even fewer people will apply to (and actually attend) law school.”

It’s not working like that. According to an article by Jordan Weissmann in the Atlantic:

Yesterday, LSAC [Law School Admissions Council] released a new bit of evidence that law school has finally lost its luster. Applicants are down more than 15 percent for the year. But there’s one problem: The wrong students have stopped applying.

Take a look at the chart below, which shows the number of applications from prospective students in each LSAT range for 2012. Here’s the take away: The number of students applying who probably have no business going to law school has dropped the least. The number of students applying who probably should apply to law school has dropped the most.

Here’s Weissmann’s chart:


Basically it looks like the smallest drop, 4.3 percent, occurs among students with the lowest LSAT scores. But there’s a huge drop, almost 21 percent, among students with really high LSAT scores.

One might expect that it would work in the other direction and the riskiness of a law career would lead only the strongest students to apply. Students with the lowest LSAT scores are likely only to be admitted to non-selective schools, and they’re the ones who will likely have more trouble when they get out. People with high scores, in contrast, can get into the top law schools and won’t really be impacted by the recession.

Then again, as Weissmann writes, “maybe that’s just what makes the smart kids the smart kids.” Sadly, it looks like the poor logic and reasoning some people display when they take the LSATs translates into poor logic and reasoning in actual law school applications.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer