There have been hundreds (if not thousands) of articles written over the past few years about the current state of legal education. Education reporters, law professors, journalists, law students, and (saddest of all) ex-law students who can’t find a job with their degree, have all weighed in on the current legal climate.
A group that hasn’t factored as much into the discussion is soon-to-be applicants. How is their perception of law school changing based on the deluge of data in this era of rapidly changing educational and economic factors?
In conjunction with Above the Law Career Center, Blueprint recently surveyed all of its summer students studying for the October 2012 LSAT to find out what they believe about the current legal and legal education system. In a series of articles, we’ll talk about how these perceptions mesh with (and at times diverge from) reality.
This week, we’ll look at how students perceive their chances of admission based on the decreasing number of applicants, an exploration that yielded some interesting results.
What do Fewer LSAT Takers Mean for Law School Applications?
Fewer LSAT Takers
The past few years have witnessed a precipitous drop in the number of people taking the LSAT. From the peak of 171,514 in 2009/2010 to the 129,958 seen in the most recent application season, LSAC has recorded roughly a 25% decrease in test takers. Moreover, the trend appears to be continuing – the June 2012 LSAT administration fielded 6% fewer test takers from the year before, likely resulting in another decrease in applicants for the upcoming season.
However, even if the 6% decrease in LSAT takers is representative of how the rest of the year will go, there are still over 120,000 students who have an interest in applying to law school (assuming a negligible number are taking the LSAT without the intention of applying). The precipitous drop in LSAT takers definitely affects chances of admission, but students themselves seem uncertain about how.
The Survey: Perception of Students and Law School Admissions
In conjunction with Above the Law Career Center, we at Blueprint recently sent out a survey to find out what pre-law students believe about the current legal and legal education system. One of the questions we asked was whether they thought admission to law school this year would be easier, harder, or the same as compared to the last few years.
Of the 587 students who responded, 27% of students thought it would be harder to gain admission to law school. 35% thought it would be easier, and the plurality went to the 37.5% who expected there to be no change in the admissions standards/difficulty of being admitted to their school of choice.
Those who thought it would be more difficult to gain admission cited a higher caliber applicant pool. When asked to write in responses to support their answers, one student explained: “The people applying to law school are more driven and focused. They will have higher numbers.” That was a common sentiment among those who thought it would be a tough year to apply. Many students felt it was those at the top of the class, so to speak, who would be applying.
However, by analyzing the decrease in top test takers combined with the law school admissions rates, an interesting trend emerges.
The following chart is published on the LSAC website:
We see that in 2010/2011, there were 3,430 students in the top 2% on the LSAT (171+), which is at or near the median LSAT score for most elite (top 14 or T14 as determined by US News & World Report rankings) law schools. That number drops to 2,600 in 2011/2012, resulting in nearly 1,000 fewer top percentile scores from which law schools to recruit. In fact, an analysis of schools incoming class data lets us know that there are approximately 4,400 seats open for students at the Top 14 law schools.
This means that the top 2% of LSAT score holders won’t even fill the seats at the most prestigious law schools. Furthermore, that’s assuming all of these applicants are otherwise qualified (many top scorers don’t have a high enough GPA) and decide to attend a T14 (which, with scholarship considerations, isn’t a given).
Dropping down to the top 5% (167+), we see there are 2,000 less people with those numbers now than in 2010 (8,575 vs. 6,500). Additionally, there were around 15,500 letters of admission sent out from the Top 14 (based on most-recently available information).
And while the number of top applicants is decreasing, law schools are, for the most part, maintaining their class sizes. Of the Top 14, only Northwestern has mentioned decreasing their class size, and they’re only “taking a close look” at the idea. So those 4,400 seats are still open, but there are far fewer people applying for them with the LSAT scores traditionally associated with admission.
What this Means for Law School Applicants
With fewer applicants at the top for the same number of slots, the entire admissions game is going to undergo a large shift. Students traditionally just outside the T14 based on their numbers will find themselves admitted, or on waitlists. As they jump at the opportunity to mortgage their future for a top school (since law school bucks the rules of supply and demand, increasing in cost as supply goes up and demand goes down), their slots in T20 schools will open up for those below them, and so on.
This comes at a time when those who test in the higher score bands are sitting the exam out. LSAT takers receiving a 170-174 saw the biggest decrease, with a drop of 20% over the past year. Since the LSAT accounts for up to 60% of the admission decision, this decrease in top test-takers adds an interesting twist: it’s actually the students with lower numbers who are staying in the fight for admission.
However, the flipside is that there has been a relatively small decline in students at the bottom of the LSAT score band. If this describes you, don’t be too concerned – numbers are still down. However, as students in the lower scoring range continue to vie for positions at schools in the third and fourth tier, a vacuum of sorts will open up in the middle.
This vacuum will likely result in law schools bending over backwards to fill their classes with students with appropriate LSAT scores. Students who manage to score in the top 20% (160+) will be particularly in demand, as those bands have all seen 15%+ drops. If this is you, you’re a rare breed, and you’ll want to use it to your advantage (i.e. negotiate for additional scholarship funds).
So, we at Blueprint are with the 35% of survey responders who think this is going to be a good year to be a law school applicant. “Smaller pool of applicants→fewer elite scores→more opportunities at prestigious law schools” sums it up nicely.
Check out the entire summary of the pre-law/LSAT survey results here.
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