The 2014 class of first-year law school students was the smallest in 40 years, and while the 2015 matriculation data isn’t final yet, it is not unlikely the current cohort will be even smaller yet. But the number of LSAT takers is up, and most admissions officers at law schools think they might see more applications for the first time in years.
Even if that turns out to be true, however, it probably won’t mean a substantial increase in the number of future lawyers studying in U.S. schools.
Kaplan Test Prep has surveyed law school admissions officers for the past two years, trying to get a handle on the struggling sector. In the first year of the survey, 54% of those polled said they cut the size of their 1L class. This year, 35% of admissions officers said they did the same. And Jeff Thomas, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of pre-law programs, has heard, anecdotally, that law schools do not plan to reverse this trend simply because more people want to study law.
After all, that’s partly how we got here in the first place.
“We’re seeing a little bit of a right-sizing of the size of incoming classes,” Thomas said.
For years the number of law schools and the size of their classes grew to meet the demand from students interested in studying law. That created oversupply in the job market, forcing prospective students to re-think whether the cost of law school can actually be made up by future earnings potential. The job market for recent law school graduates is still very competitive, making the pace of any recovery likely to be a slow one.
Even with 88% of admissions officers predicting an increase in applications over last year, virtually the same amount expect at least one law school to close in the near future because of financial troubles.
There have been very few schools across the law school spectrum that have been insulated from the downturn of recent years. Top-tier institutions may not have seen a large decline in the number of applicants, but Thomas said they’ve seen a big decline in the number of well-qualified applicants with high LSAT scores.
“Law schools have had the tough decision to maintain the size of their classes but decrease the academic standards by which they admit students or hold firm on those standards, and, as a result, decrease the size of their incoming classes,” Thomas said.
Like the lower-tiered schools that have seen 40-50% drop-offs in applications, the most elite schools, too, have welcomed fewer students as 1Ls, foregoing tuition revenue in the process. Even still, admissions data shows a slight dip in the median LSAT score of accepted students.
But Thomas said law schools have done something else to adapt to what may become the “new normal” — they have evolved their curricula. Law schools now offer more practical classes, internships, externships, and partnerships with law firms or government agencies to get their students marketable work experience before graduation.
“That wasn’t always the case five, six, seven years ago,” Thomas said.
And in the end, if only the most dedicated future lawyers decide law school is worth the risk, Thomas said that would ultimately be a win for everyone. Law schools would get more serious students, the economy would get a more reasonable number of newly graduated lawyers each year, and students would get the education they truly want, rather than one that pads their resumes and lets them hide out while they figure out what their next steps are.
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