March 19, 2011
Silver Linings in the Drop in Law School Applications?
Posted by Erik Gerding

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that law school applications are down 11.5% from last year after several years of growth.  Slate speculates that the drop in admissions owes in part to a "cultural shift" in which potential applicants have been turned off to law school by "law school is a scam" blogs and media reports about dismal job prospects for many law grads.  Perhaps the disconnect plaguing law school applicants that I wrote about over a year ago is beginning to correct.

Is this an ill portent for law schools?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  I can't find the underlying Law School Admissions Council report on which the Journal is reporting.  Fewer applicants may well mean schools can be less choosy in admissions, and that LSAT and GPA indicators for matriculating classes may flatten or drop.  On the other hand, there may be a silver lining for law schools.  Students who are only attending law school to ride out a bad economy may not be the most motivated in the classroom.  Nothing feeds unhappiness like feeling stuck in a degree program (or in a profession).  Remember the good ole days when the main concern among law firm associates was "golden handcuffs" and quality of life?

Unfortunately, we don't know which students are dropping out of the applicant pool.  Are law schools losing better applicants?  Are they losing more motivated students?  We'll have an answer to the former question at some point soon.  The latter question, unfortunately, is harder to gauge.  Law schools don't have a good way of measuring whether students will be engaged by law school and the legal profession.  Personal statements in applications have always struck me as an exercise in unadulterated balderdash.  Perhaps medical school-style interviews (something Northwestern Law started doing a few years back) offer a better way of assessing an applicant's motivation.  For empirical purposes, it would be quite useful to have even an imperfect anonymous survey of applicants' reasons for applying.  (We already have a similar survey for student engagement in law school.)

The real problem, however, is that, regardless of a drop in admissions, law schools will continue to enroll and graduate the same number of students -- perhaps more should law schools continue to increase enrollment to meet budget crunches and a bumper crop of new schools comes on line every year.  We can hope that the drop in legal hiring is just cyclical, but I fear that this may be a longer term structural shift in the legal employment market.  The real news would come if law schools cut enrollment, radically rethink the ways they educate students to meet a tough job market, and otherwise adapt to a changed world.  Perhaps a drop in applications will provide the smelling salts to wake the legal education industry up.

I'm curious to see what our Conglomerate Masters say about the challenges faces by law grads and law schools on Tuesday, when this blog focuses on the debate on changes to ABA accreditation standards for law schools.     

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