During the peak of the applications cycle, newspapers often interview law school deans about how their local law schools are faring. These articles include discussions about how many applications each local law school has received compared to prior years, a somewhat useful piece of information that doesn’t always provide the full picture because the deans the papers interview only know how many people are applying to their own schools and not the characteristics of the total applicant pool. If applicants are sending out more applications than before (they are), the deans won’t be in a position to know either way.
Here’s an example from the Chicago Tribune in March: ”Loyola [University Chicago School of Law] will have about the same number of applicants this year as it did five years ago, said David Yellen, dean of the law school. There was a huge increase in applications during the recession as undergraduates postponed entering the job market and went to graduate school.”
This quote only tells us how many people are interested in one school relative to previous years. No one can tell us how many people applied to at least one law school in Illinois, how many applicants were accepted, and how many applied full- or part-time. Instead, we must turn to back issues of the Official Guide, which means lots and lots of data entry. I managed to put this together, but for full-time applicants only, for two reasons.
First, not all law schools have part-time programs, and it’s important to exclude them to make valid comparisons. Second, part-timers tend to be in a different, older demographic that law school watchers don’t seem as interested in analyzing. Here’re the full-time data for Illinois, for those who are curious.
This tells us is that Illinois’s law schools are accepting more of their applicants than in the past. The statewide acceptance rate grew from about 25 percent to 30 percent between 2004 and 2010, and some schools—Southern Illinois University School of Law, for example—regularly accept more than half of their full-time applicants. Meanwhile the number of people who chose to attend in the fall—the ultimate gauge of law school interest—remained the same throughout this time, at about 2,000 per year. Ideally, we’d know how many people Illinois’s law schools rejected, but if the most accommodating law school (Southern Illinois) rejects only 300–450 applicants per year on average in this period, it would seem that the fluctuations in the applicant pool aren’t as remarkable as the fluctuations in the number of applications. This shows why relying on deans’ knowledge of applications to their own schools provides less insight than it appears.
Assembling this mass of data just to see if one newspaper drew reasonable conclusions in one article allows us to answer two vastly more interesting questions. One, between fall 2004 and fall 2010 (the 2013 Official Guide was not online when this article was written), which schools in which parts of the country have full-time applicants been applying to? Two, what can law schools’ acceptance rates and applicant yields tell us about law schools’ futures in a time of dwindling applicants?
The Law School Applications Process by Region
Here’s the national picture for full-time law school applications, admitted applicants, and matriculations between 2004 and 2010.
This graph is similar to what newspapers like the Chicago Tribune would rely on when comparing current application years to previous ones, and even adding part-time application information wouldn’t change the top and bottom lines much. However, we can now see how the regional distribution of applications and matriculants varies throughout the United States, and we find that most of the swings in full-time applications and matriculants occurred along the East Coast, particularly in the Southeast, e.g., North Carolina. (I use Bureau of Economic Analysis regions because they include Washington, D.C., with northern Mid-Atlantic States, unlike the Census Bureau, which places it in the South.)
Here is how matriculation rates compare between the 2007 trough year and 2010:
Much of the growth in the Southeast is due to the fact that since 2004, that region gained seven law schools, including Ave Maria School of Law, which moved to Florida from Michigan in 2008. That’s 16 percent more law schools, much greater growth than elsewhere. By contrast, regions like the Great Lakes really haven’t seen much change (losing Ave Maria aside). I believe law schools that opened branch campuses only serve part-timers, so they don’t affect this analysis (one more reason to limit this analysis to full-time applicants).
There are two conclusions to take from this. One, people writing about long-term swings in law school applications cycles should know that some regions have been more stable than others. What goes on in Chicago doesn’t necessarily represent national trends. Two, the media has missed the story about law school expansion in the South. The press should try interviewing deans in the Carolinas and Florida about whether their states need so many new law schools.
Many High-Ranked Law Schools Are in Precarious Positions
Higher education institutions of all stripes are often judged by their “applicant yield,” the percentage of admitted applicants who chose to matriculate. For law schools, I wondered how this statistic compared to their acceptance rates. I’d hypothesized that the correlation would be clear: the more selective the school, the higher the applicant yield. Quite the contrary, the correlation is quite modest, and to my surprise, there are a bunch of prestigious law schools that are not very popular with their accepted applicants. These law schools thrive by scavenging applicants that typically apply to law schools with very highest U.S. News rankings. As a test, I took law schools’ average acceptance rates since 2004, along with their average applicant yields, and cut them into quintiles. The following law schools are “golden,” that is, they are in the lowest quintile of acceptance rates and the highest in applicant yields, in alphabetical order:
•Arkansas at Little Rock
•New Mexico
•North Carolina
•North Carolina Central
Not too many surprises there. Aside from Stanford, Yale, and Harvard—which we’d expect to see—the rest of the list is public law schools. Two are in the booming southeast (discussed above), three are from very small states where applicants would probably expect to practice after graduating, and Maryland is one of the cheapest law schools in the D.C. area with a high U.S. News ranking, though George Mason is nearby, so it could just be a fluke. Here are the “indie” law schools, ones that are accommodating yet popular among accepted applicants (highest quintile for acceptances, highest for yields):
•Pontifical Catholic (Puerto Rico)
•South Dakota
•Southern Illinois
Again, few surprises, mostly public schools in Western states, and the last two having a strong Christian background. Here are the “marginal” law schools (very accommodating, low yields):
•Florida Coastal
•Golden Gate
•New England
•Thomas M. Cooley
•Western New England
I believe Phoenix, Florida Coastal, and Charlotte are for-profit institutions, which explains their appearance on this list. And finally, our list of scavengers, the group I find most interesting:
•Boston College
•George Mason
•George Washington
•Southern California
•William and Mary
Three of these are in D.C. (George Mason is practically there as well), and all of them made the top 50 in U.S. News’s last two rankings. To give an idea of how ferocious competition is among them for the handful of applicants whose LSAT scores are so high you’d think they could levitate objects with their minds, University of Chicago barely made it off the list.
Here’s what they look like graphed together, plus the remaining T14 law schools for fun.
The one in the upper left is Yale, the lowermost left, Southern California, the three in the upper right are in Puerto Rico, and in the lower right, Cooley (Phoenix is above it). Although the “marginal” law schools are the ones that likely face an imminent full-time applicant crisis, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the “scavengers” and their neighbors. There will be far fewer quality applicants in 2012—to say nothing of how many there were in 2011—so these law schools will either cut their class sizes (whether they announce it or not) or they’ll have to accept less stellar applicants and risk fading into mediocrity.

Matt Leichter is a writer and attorney licensed in Wisconsin and New York, and he holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from Marquette University. He operates The Law School Tuition Bubble, which archives, chronicles, and analyzes the deteriorating American legal education system. It is also a platform for higher education and student debt reform.