This year’s Law School Admission Test cycle has come to a close, and the numbers are sending mixed messages about legal education’s current appeal.
On the positive front, the number of people taking the LSAT in February increased 5.4 percent over the previous year, according to LSAT administrator the Law School Admission Council Inc. In fact, test takers were up during three of the cycle’s four testing dates, which saw a cumulative 3.3 increase nationally. The cycle kicked off in June 2016 and wrapped in February.
But that increase in people sitting for the all-important admissions test has yet to translate into any boost in individuals actually applying to law school. In fact, the total number of applicants was down 1.9 percent as of March 31, when 87 percent of the final applicant count was in last year.
That figure is unlikely to inspire enthusiasm among law school administrators, who have been hoping that that the applicant pool bottomed out in recent years and that the number of aspiring lawyers would at least hold steady if not tick up this cycle.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a 5 percent application spike before the [fall admissions] cycle is over. It may be flat, at best,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs at Kaplan Test Prep. He noted that the majority of applications have already been submitted for the upcoming academic year.
More LSAT takers would seem to foreshadow more applicants, but that isn’t necessarily the case, said Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who writes about law school enrollment trends on his blog, Excess of Democracy.
“Prospective students may take the LSAT, be disappointed in their score, and choose not to apply or choose other graduate options,” he said. “That may be a cycle-to-cycle thing, but it may be getting worse. If prospective law students believe they need to achieve X score to get into Y school, because that’s the only ‘good’ school according to their prelaw adviser, they may not apply at all if their scores come out too low.”
Moreover, this year’s number may simply indicate an increase in people sitting for the LSAT multiple times in hopes of earing a higher score.
“They’re taking it more than one time,” said Al Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. “Schools these days—other than the elites—count only your highest score. I think students realize that if they can get a better LSAT score, they will get a better scholarship from whatever institution they going to, or they can trade up to a better institution.”
Brophy said he always encourages prospective law students to take the LSAT multiple times, as a two- or three-point score improvement could make the difference between no scholarship and a half-tuition scholarship.
Still others take the LSAT before they’ve done the necessary soul searching to determine whether they want a career in law. “In every given year, there will be some number of students who have taken the test on multiple occasions,” Thomas said. “Secondly, there is the, ‘Once I have a score in my hand, what should I do with it?’ deal. Students still have to go through that introspective process of ‘Is law school right for me?’”
Inevitably for some, the answer will be “no.”
The test itself costs $180 per administration. Many takers also pay for test prep courses and study aids.
A late surge in applicants this year is still possible, though official application deadlines for most law schools have already passed. A growing number of law school in recent years have allowed prospective students to submit applications after the formal deadline has passed, while others have pushed back their deadlines to allow would-be students to submit LSAT scores earned on the June exam for admission that fall. Those changes are intended to expand law school’s pool of applicants at a time when interest in legal education is waning.
“The majority of law schools are accepting June scores for fall admission because of the drop in applicants,” Thomas said. “A lot of schools—particularly in the quest to get their median LSAT score up—will tell an applicant or candidate, ‘Take the test again in June; we’d love to see a higher score and then we might have a spot for you.’”
Some legal educators have speculated that the Donald Trump presidency will prompt greater interest in law school, as lawyers are now seen by many as defenders of democracy and the rule of law. That could lead to a wave of late applicants who were inspired by the army of lawyers who flocked to airports in January to assist those affected by Trump’s travel ban. More likely, those prospective lawyers will apply in the 2017-18 admission cycle, which allows them more time to study and take the LSAT and research law schools, admissions officials say.
The year’s LSAT cycle got off to a slow start in June, when the number of takers decreased nearly 1 percent from the previous year. But the picture improved in September when LSAT takers increased 1 percent. The December administration saw a 7.6 percent increase in the number of test takers, and that momentum continued in February with a 5.4 percent increase. Altogether, 109,354 people sat for the exam during the fall 2017 admissions cycle. That’s the highest figure since the fall 2013 admissions cycle.
Brophy said he’s not counting on a late wave of applicants this cycle and a resulting enrollment boost.
“I think we’ve got a good idea of where things are going to be this year,” he said. “It’s going to be flat.”
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ