A widely discussed 2017 report on Asian Americans in the legal profession painted a grim portrait of the pipeline, concluding that first-year Asian-American law school enrollment declined significantly more than other groups from 2009 to 2016.
But a new study from researchers at the Law School Admission Council concludes that it’s not yet time to hit the panic button. The number of Asians applying to law school has not declined more than the wider—largely white—applicant pool, according to the latest study, titled, “Application, Admission, and Matriculation Trends: Asian and Non-Asian Law School Candidates.” And Asian students tend to enroll at top law schools, the researchers found.
The differing results boil down to the two studies’ differing methodologies, said Ann Gallagher, the council’s senior director of research and a co-author of the new study. First, the 2017 study—a collaboration between the Yale Law School and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association—looked only at students who had already enrolled in law school, whereas the new study examines the entire applicant pool, Gallagher said.
Second, the new study included not only applicants who identify as Asian American, but also students who identified as both Asian and another racial category, as well as Asian applicants from outside the United States. That more expansive definition offers a fuller picture than looking solely at Asian Americans, Gallagher said.
“It’s a different sample, but that’s the way we do all our analysis,” Gallagher said. “We include people who have selected multiple categories. We have been doing that for a while, particularly because the percentage of people who select more than one category has been growing over the years.”
Excluding people who select multiple racial categories eliminates too large a portion of the pool, she added.
It was the dire numbers from the 2017 study that prompted the council to look more closely at applicant trends. The earlier study, co-authored by California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and titled “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law,” used data from the American Bar Association to determine that Asian-American first-year enrollment fell 43 percent from 2009 to 2016, compared to 34 percent among whites.
Liu said in interview Wednesday that he does not view the two studies as contradicting each other. Rather, they focus on different points of the pipeline into the legal profession.
“They’re just looking at different things,” he said. “The primary emphasis of the LSAC study is on applicant data. What we focused on was matriculants. The data are not inconsistent.”
Using its more expansive definition of Asians, the council found that group comprised between 10 percent and 10.9 percent of the total law school applicant pool each year between 2011 and 2016. Put another way, the percentage of Asians applying to law school fluctuated very little, despite the actual decline of both Asian applicants and applicants overall. That conclusion refutes the idea that Asians are staying away from law school more than other racial groups.
However, the council’s study bolsters one key conclusion reached in the 2017 report—that Asians are disproportionately enrolled in higher-ranked law schools.
Asians tend to score three to four points higher on the Law School Admission Test, on average, than non-Asians, according to the council report. They also have undergraduate grade-point averages that tend to be slightly higher. Despite those strong indicators, the council found that Asians have a 29 percent acceptance rate for each law school to which they apply, compared to 43 percent for non-Asian applicants. Nearly 74 percent of Asian applicants are accepted to at least one law school, compared to more than 75 percent of non-Asians.
But the council researchers speculate those differences are due not to discrimination against Asian applicants—as alleged in a high-profile law suit against Harvard University—but the fact that Asian applicants tend to apply to the most selective law schools.
Asians on average apply to about five law schools ranked in the top 49 by U.S. News & World Report. Non-Asians on average apply to three top schools. Asians also have a slightly lower matriculation rate than non-Asians, meaning that a higher percentage of Asians who get accepted choose not to enroll. That helps explain the worrisome first-year enrollment trends initially identified in the 2017 study. But once again, the council study suggests that the desire to attend a top-flight law school is at play.
“If you look at the difference in matriculation, you can also see that Asians who were accepted to at least one law school are less likely to matriculate,” Gallagher said. “They are self-selecting, saying ‘If I don’t get into Harvard, maybe I don’t want to go to law school.’ It’s a prestige thing. That’s our guess.”