Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that the October 2013 Law School Admission Test was the 13th straight administration with fewer test takers compared to the previous year.
The number of people who took the LSAT in October—traditionally the biggest cohort annually—dropped by 11 percent since last year, marking the fourth year of steady decline and intensifying worries that a turnaround remains out of sight.
The drop in October followed a 5 percent decline of test takers in June from the previous year, according to the Law School Admission Council, which administers the Law School Admission Test four times a year.
Together, these early indicators suggest that law schools are in for yet another difficult admission cycle.
“This is a big deal,” said Dan Filler, a professor at the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law. “I think there was kind of an optimism bias among a lot of people in the academy, and maybe a little sense of disbelief that the number of applicants could and would continue to decline.”
In October, 33,673 people took the LSAT, down from 37,780 last year. That’s just under half—45 percent—of the 60,746 who took the October LSAT in 2009, a historic high.
While this year’s numbers hardly reassured deans worried about filling their first-year classes, they represented a smaller decline than last year, when 16 percent fewer people sat for the October exam.
Nonetheless, admissions officials are disappointed and resigned, said Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School.
“There had been a hope that with the 5 percent decline in June, perhaps we were leveling out. Now it is more than apparent that the 2014 pool will be significantly smaller yet again,” she said.
Zearfoss noted that October marked the 13th straight sitting in which the number of test takers declined over the previous year.
University of Dayton School of Law Dean Paul McGreal said he entered the summer with virtually no idea where the application trend would go, particularly since many of last year’s applicants waited longer than usual in the cycle to apply.
“There is a great degree of uncertainty, and the data we do have show it will be another decline,” McGreal said. “But we’ll have a better idea of where applications are at the beginning of . This clearly is something that’s on everyone’s radar screen.”
Continuing declines will make it harder for deans to argue that the waning interest in obtaining a law degree is only temporary, Filler said. In some cases, deans have requested financial assistance from their universities to weather the application decline, arguing that the trend would reverse or at least bottom out, and that subsidies would be a stopgap, he added. That becomes a harder case to make after four years of application declines.
Consequently, administrators will confront difficult financial decisions this year, Filler predicted. A handful of law schools have already started paring down faculty, but many more will need to do so, he said.
A continued and dramatic decline in applications may finally force law schools to lower their admission standards en masse—a move they have been loath to pursue out of fear of falling in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. But if virtually every school takes that step, damage to their rankings would be relative, Filler said.