When Did the Law School Tipping Point Occur?

Answer: We’ll never really know (for reasons I’ll get into), but there are some good indicators that it was late 2009/early 2010. This isn’t widely acknowledged, but demonstrating it requires some careful calculating that’s worth showing.

The question is, when did people start not thinking about going to law school? (If that makes sense.)

Enrolling in law school is a multi-step process that I’ll reduce to two, taking the LSAT and applying. Looking at applicants is easy enough; looking at LSATs is not. Some people take the test more than once, and the LSAC is stingy about releasing data that break down LSATs by how many tests were first-time or repeat administrations. Worse, the previous release of the LSAC’s “Performance of Repeat Test Takers on the Law School Admission Test,” which publicizes this information, stopped at February 2010, tantalizing us with what was to come. Nor did it help that the February 2010 administration was a cliffhanger: There was an 11 percent drop in first-time takers over the previous year! Did the decline continue in June! Tune in next season, viewers!

Well, it’s been three years, so the LSAC has at last televised the resolution (pdf).

First-Time LSATs One-Year Moving Sum

It turns out that the number of first through third-plus LSATs do not add up to the total. I listed the discrepancy as “Canceled/Nonstandard.” I don’t know if that’s correct strictly speaking, but it tends to correlate with movements in first-time takers. I have no idea how many people take the LSAT under nonstandard conditions, but the data show a discrepancy, so there it is.

A few observations. One, by February 2013, there was a record low number of first-time LSATs going back to 1995 and certainly earlier. Two, the number of second-time LSATs has trended upward since 2006, which is attributable to the ABA’s decision to require law schools to report repeat takers’ highest LSAT scores and not their averages. This is one more reason to isolate first-time takers.

And what do they tell us? Although there was a substantial drop in February 2010 first-time test takers, the decline was modest the following June. Then it hit the fan in October.

Percent Change LSAT One-Year Moving Sums

You can also see that repeat takers resisted declines for a few more periods. All administration types only started falling together in June 2011. The real question is why did February 2010 fall more than June 2010? For that I have no answer. I’d need to know the typical demographics of the test takers in each cycle, so the February drop could be mostly an anomaly. The only thing I know is that first-time takers in that period tend to have lower scores, which indicates that they might be older, non-trad types—not because people’s LSAT abilities rapidly turn to mush as people age but because people who would naturally do well on the test either did so already or are employed in other fields. It’s a big ol’ case of selection bias.

All told, we can imagine the number of LSAT takers as a ball being pushed up a hill by multiple forces and resisted by others, e.g. unemployment versus the population of college-educated young people and informal voices telling them not to bother with law school. At some point the forces pushing the ball uphill were countered by other forces in late 2009/early 2010. Those were, I imagine, early scamblogs (Big Debt Small Law), Above the Law (Elie Mystal’s writings in particular), and Mark Greenbaum’s op-ed to the L.A. Times.

If you want a second opinion on the evidence, we can hypothesize that a “signature” of the tipping point would be an unusual number of people who took the LSAT once or twice but who decided not to retake it or apply after all. Mathematically, the LSAT year, June to February, corresponds best to the applicant cycle. We find that in 2007, 2008, and 2009, that on average there were 1.08 first-time LSAT takers per applicant in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively. In 2010, the ratio spiked to 1.17 and then fell a little in subsequent years. With 102,948 2009-2010 first-time LSAT takers, and assuming the 1.08 ratio, we get about 94,500 applicants for 2010. Instead, there were only 87,900, implying that about 6,500 people with a first-time LSAT score in hand in 2009-10 chose not to apply to law school. (It doesn’t matter that the ratio accounts for behaviors of repeat takers, it just needs to be measurable, correlative, and logically related.) Repeating the same process for all LSATs to find a ceiling that includes subsequent test takers who mayn’t’ve applied, we get 100,300 expected applicants, a shortfall of 12,400.

LSATs to Subsequent Applicants

So, sometime between receiving their scores for the June 2009 administration and the beginning of the fall 2010 application cycle, somewhere between 6,500 and 12,400 people dropped out between the LSAT cycle and the application cycle. Switching to a calendar year LSAT cycle (to align it better with the application cycle) raises the range to 8,800 and 14,400.

This, second analysis, suggests that the tipping point occurred in late 2009 but the impact on first-time LSATs wasn’t felt until 2010. It could mean more credit for the early scamblogs and Above the Law, and other sources than the Greenbaum op-ed.

Once the peak was reached, the countervailing forces overpowered the upward ones. Unemployment gave way to distrust in law school as a viable long-term career path. Certainly other sources contributed as well, e.g. The New York Times, but those articles were published a year after the Internet set things in motion. Now inertia is setting in and the trough is slowly being reached.

It’ll be another three years until the LSAC updates the number of first-time and repeat takers again. We may find out who contributed to the upswing in February LSATs in 2014.

Stay tuned…

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6 Responses

  1. It feels great having played a part in seeing the law schools go into decline.

  2. Qualitatively, I think the credit/timing goes to…blog software.

    Isolated groups of graduates knew the schools had become loci of corruption long before the 2006 or so period…but their isolated voices (poorly propagated) were drowned out by the paid advertising and cultural mythos of the law schools.

    Blog software vastly lowered the cost of publishing and re-publishing.

    Thus the scamblogs…thus the slow, long-delayed triumph of the truth.

    One can only hope that the slow pace of law school destruction is matched only by its utter thoroughness.

    It may be getting time to assemble a blacklist database of the last two decades’ worth of school administrators and tenured law professors – the authors and profiteers of this epic fraud.

    They should be identified and de facto banned from future legal employment.

    They (hopefully) will be out of a job soon and we should all work very, very hard to make sure they never find one again.

    They have brought financial ruin to hundreds of thousands of highly motivated people.

    They should very much share in that ruin.

  3. There were 19,085 standard LSAT test takers for the February 2014 administration. This number and all other statistics stated below do not include test takers who took the new Spanish LSAT. The 19,085 count is down 206 or 1.1% from February 2013.

    The percentage of repeat test takers for this administration compared to the same administration last year has slightly increased. For February 2014 , 46% had previously taken the test. In February 2013, 44% had previously taken the test.

    The volume of first-time test takers in February 2014 was down approximately 4% from February 2013.

    The February test taker number is different from the total February number posted to the website because the website number counts the new Spanish LSAT administered for the first time this February, whereas the counts in the e-mail do not.

    • Anonymous, what is your source for (1) the number of Spanish LSAT test-takers, (2) the number of repeat test-takers in the 2013-14 LSAT year, and (3) the number of first-time test-takers in the 2013-14 LSAT year? Also, what is this e-mail you’re referring to?

  4. […] readers will recall that the law school “tipping point” probably occurred four years ago, and I think back then even Big Debt Small Law emphasized graduates falling into doc review jobs […]

  5. […] that reputable law schools are worth applying to while most of the rest are not. More than even the law school tipping point between late 2009 and early 2010, I can’t recall ever seeing evidence of such discrete […]

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