At Least the Strib Didn’t Call It a “Golden Ticket”

“Law school is no longer a sure bet. Would-be students are noticing.” Jenna Ross, “Slump in law school applicants,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)

Progress perhaps? *Sigh*

The swell of students applying to law school — despite growing debt and contracting job prospects — has slowed.

?? “Despite” growing debt and contracting job prospects? Not “Because of”? Okay I’m just being a nitpickity editor.

One thing that hasn’t changed in reporting on declining law school applications is the self-congratulatory response from the administrators.

“Frankly, for many years, there were many students who went to law school because they didn’t know what to do,” said Cari Haaland, assistant dean of admissions for the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “Now, prospective students are thinking more critically about the decision.”

The University of Minnesota is similarly sanguine:

“The ones that do apply really want to be there,” said Nick Wallace, the U’s admissions director. “They’re not just applying on a whim or as an escape route from the real world.”

Bear in mind the former statement comes from an official at a law school that’s only existed since 1999, although Haaland may’ve been in the admissions business before St. Thomas reopened its doors after closing in the 1930s. That said, this response isn’t new, and readers may recall Washington University’s Dean Kent Syverud referring to it as “the froth in the applicant pool.” Of course, as with all things prospective law student-related, applicants can be whatever you want them to be, from stupid, self-destructive lemmings to honest, bright, hard-working, lawyers of the future who’ve done the math and know why they want to be there. The same goes for unsurveyable non-applicants, who according to law school administrators are greedy, opportunistic, unsophisticated, and dishonest about their reasons for wanting to practice law. One wonders why law school admissions people haven’t found a way to filter these types out, or why they accept more people when applications increase. If they were so concerned about greedy applicants, why do so many of them claim so many of their graduates make six-figure salaries? I guess law school is where “last clear chance” went to die.

It never occurs to them that perhaps scam bloggers have deterred bright minds who recognized that the legal profession could not guarantee much of a place for them, or that some of the people who go to law school for less-than-noble reasons can still be excellent lawyers under better economic circumstances. It’s black and white to administrators.

New law students say they’re aware of the data, but are sure of their abilities and hopeful the market will have improved by the time they graduate. Several said that their goal has never been to nab a high-paying job at one of the big law firms, which perhaps have been hardest hit by the recession.

Still, “it is discouraging,” said [name omitted], a “1L” at William Mitchell College of Law. “Everything on the Internet is ‘Don’t go to law school.’ But I have to be confident that this is right for me, and that there are lots of people and alumni who want to help.”

I don’t know the extent of Ross’s information; I presume it’s only from interviews, but unlike her interviewee I find it discouraging. One, new law students stubbornly buy into the bottleneck argument and believe the legal profession’s problems are wholly cyclical and not structural. Obviously Minnesota’s law students are not aware of the data as Ross conveys. If they were, they’d look at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Web site and find that the state government projects 5,893 total lawyer job openings between 2009 and 2019. They could then compare this with the number of graduates from Minnesota’s law schools courtesy of the Official Guide. In 2010, 937 people graduated from Minnesota’s law schools, down from 962 in 2009. With these numbers in mind, we can calculate a 63% surplus of law grads in Minnesota by 2019.

I don’t make this stuff up; I get it from government agencies. It means that no amount of self-confidence and help from alumni can create jobs when there was never any demand for them.

Two, I agree that many if not most law students aren’t interested in Biglaw jobs. The question is, why should we loan them money to spend three years out of the workforce (stagnation aside) in law school if they won’t be more productive than had they not gone or end up unable to use their law degrees at all?

For those who think that Minnestoa’s 63% surplus graduates (on top of those who are underemployed or could relocate there from other states) can be translated into non-lawyer jobs because of the law degree’s versatility, St. Thomas is your new friend.

This summer, before first-year classes even began, the University of St. Thomas offered a workshop for admitted students called, “What can I do with a law degree?” Students drew a lesser-known profession or area of law, quickly researched it and presented it to their classmates.

HAHAHAHAHAHA! The law school doesn’t even have to convince students that the juris doctor is versatile in its sales pitch. They’re willing to buy the degree, and the university will then make them sell it to one another. You can’t make this up.

But permit me to quarrel with the Strib instead.

During the recession, more people applied to law school, according to the Law School Admission Council. But then for fall 2011, the number of applications nationwide dropped 9.9 percent, according to the council, to the lowest total number in at least nine years. The number of people taking the LSAT also took a dive. [LSTB: Link here]

Statements such as this, along with the article’s title, “Slump in law school applicants,” don’t really do justice to what’s happened over the decade. More accurately, 2011 has seen a law school applicant nosedive. It looks like this.

If we adjust for population—and I admit that perhaps using a smaller age cohort such as 20-25 year-old college graduates would be better—the number of applicants per 10,000 residents has fallen to 2.53 according to the LSAC’s preliminary data, a record low as far as we know. However, only the preliminary estimates are in (actual applicant numbers are in the charts except for 2011), and they’re usually revised upwards. Notice also that despite the precipitous drop in jobs, the “froth” wasn’t nearly as high as it was after the Dot-com bubble popped. The Strib article understates this.

On the whole, the four Minnesota law schools saw the same surge in applications, then a similar fall. Applications to the University of Minnesota, the best-ranked of the bunch, rose substantially through 2010-11, then dropped by about 8 percent for this fall, compared with last year. Applications to St. Thomas spiked in 2010, then dropped 29 percent for this fall.

This is what the Strib’s surges and spikes look like, according to Official Guide archives and what’s stated in the paragraph above.

Note also that when we began this discussion Cari Haaland stated, “Frankly, for many years, there were many students who went to law school because they didn’t know what to do,” which I guess means that St. Thomas doesn’t have a high opinion of three out of every ten of its applicants. On the bright side, the University of Minnesota’s Nick Wallace apparently thinks that the 800 more applicants than in 2008 are people who “are not just applying on a whim or as an escape route from the real world.” Personally, I think the admissions people are just happy that they don’t have to slog through so many applications.

Despite having way more applicants above the trend, the U of M still enrolled fewer students and touts their high LSAT and GPA scores in the article, which we’d expect. As the number of applicants drops, so too does the number of high-caliber applicants, leaving them to be even more quickly snatched up by prestigious law schools. Retrenching classes helps law schools maintain their positions in the U.S. News rankings while the St. Thomas’s of the system see significant applicant drops. It’ll be interesting to see if the LSAC’s volume data verify this when they become available.

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2 Responses

  1. Matt,

    Another post with great information–I hope people are reading and paying attention.

    Let me add a bit more information to reinforce your observations. The key number, in my view, is applicants (not applications, which have gone up per person because it is easier to submit multiple applications).

    The most recent peak in applicants (number of bodies) was in 2004, at nearly 100,000. It then began a year after year decline, until the 2008 recession hit, leading to a two year bump in applicants, in 2009 and 2010, until it turned down again in 2011.

    This is where it gets interesting. The number of LSAT test takers in 2008 jumped by 10,000 over the year before (to 151,000), but the number of applicants only increased by 3,600. The number of test takers increased by another 20,000 in 2009–to a record high of 171,000–but the number of applicants only increased by 1,900.

    That tells you that a lot of people were taking the test, but relatively few actually decided to go (seeing if they would score high enough to be worth the leap into law school). The demand for law school was soft. And this was before the exposes in NYT.

    Here is another telling indicator. LSAT test takers in 2003-04 was 147,617–and the number of applicants (for entering class fall 2004) was 98,700. LSAT test takers in 2010-2011 was 155,050–and the number of applicants was 78,900 (entering 2011). That is a significant drop in the yield of actual applicants per test takers. 2004 had 7,000+ fewer test takers than 2010 but nearly 20,000 more applicants (wow!)

    Again, demand is soft. The word is out about the risks of law school.

    If the recent 18.7% drop in LSAT test takers results in the same low yield in applicants, law schools will face severe challenges in filling their entering class.

  2. Brian,

    You make some good points. For readers, I covered the issue of applicants more specifically in my post, “Law Schools Oblivious to Applicant Nosedive,” and Professor Tamanaha did as well in “The Coming Crunch for Law Schools.” The same data that I used before appear in the graphs in this post.

    I’ve never tried comparing LSATs to applicants. I did try going into LSAT-takers in mid-June, but one of my readers pointed out that around 2005, the ABA/LSAC/LSDAS (now CAS) shifted their position on retakes. Before then, law schools took the average score for retakers, but now they take the highest score. This encourages prospective students to retake the LSAT to get a higher score and also muddies comparisons between now and pre-2005. To what extent, I know not. I then thought of comparing applicants to first-time LSAT-takers; the data can be found here, but I figured that applicants alone would tell the story. Perhaps it’s worth addressing again.

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