Legal educators are cautiously optimistic that the 2015-16 academic year will mark the low point for law school enrollment, and that the number of applicants next year will start to recover from a five-year slide.
“The long, dark days of declines are over, for the time being,” said Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who tracks law school enrollment. “How much of a turnaround it will be, I don’t know. But if I’m a dean, I’m going to the central administration and saying, ‘Hey, keep us afloat for a little bit longer. Things are getting better.’ “
Two data points fuel their hopes. With the admissions cycle wrapping up, the number of applicants to American Bar Association-accredited law schools declined by a modest 2 percent compared with the previous year — the smallest reduction in four years, according to the Law School Admission Council. The number of applicants fell by more than 10 percent each year from 2011 to 2013. [See charts below.]
Meanwhile, the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test has increased in each of the three sitting since December — spiking 6.6 percent last month. “Historically, the June LSAT is the start of the new admissions season for law schools, and June along with October have the largest number of first-time test takers,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of prelaw programs for Kaplan Test Prep. “There’s reason for optimism.”
Thomas cautioned that a small percentage of the June LSAT takers likely intend to start law school this fall — most schools now accept June scores for fall entry — but he expects the vast majority to apply for the 2016-17 academic year. He predicted the number of October LSAT takers would also rise, based on interest in Kaplan’s prep courses. “I think we’ll know a lot more after October,” he said.
Sarah Zearfoss (left), senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School, agreed it’s too soon to pop open the champagne. “We’re talking about a 6 percent increase over what is a historically low number [of June LSAT takers],” she said. “But I’m happy to see that the numbers have stopped plummeting. I would hope that we’ve already hit the bottom.”
More than 23,200 people took the LSAT in June, an increase of 1,435, according to the council.
Law school is more attractive in part because the entry-level legal job market has improved, if only because fewer graduates are competing for positions, law school administrators and admissions consultants said. Nearly 60 percent of 2014 law graduates found full-time jobs that required bar passage within 10 months, according to the ABA. That was up from fewer than 55 percent for the class of 2011.
“The terror that was driving away applicants has passed,” Brophy said. “You just aren’t hearing the horror stories anymore of the person who was on law review and at the top of their class who couldn’t find a job.”
College graduates who deferred law school when the job market was at its nadir might now dare a second look, said University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Jerry Organ. “It’s conceivable to me that the population of 25- to 29-year-olds thinking of law school is increasing because there were people who sat out from 2011 to 2014, when the news wasn’t so good,” he said.
Undergraduate programs are enrolling and graduating more students following several years of declines, admissions consultant Mike Spivey said, widening the pool of prospective law students. The government’s National Center for Education Statistics reported enrollment declines in 2011 and 2012. “If the October LSAT is also up, you can say with great confidence that this year’s cycle will be up for the first time in a long time,” he said. For now, look for flat or declining numbers of new students arriving on law campuses in the fall compared with the approximately 38,000 who matriculated last fall, based on that modest decrease in applications for the cycle now ending.
And law schools don’t just need more applicants; they also need more qualified ones, Organ said. He analyzed LSAT data in March and found a decline in the number of 2015 test takers with scores of 165 or higher compared with the previous year — meaning a less qualified cohort.
“There aren’t enough applicants with high scores for the top-end schools to maintain their class size and their profile,” Organ said.
Michigan Law, for example, cut its incoming class size by about 10 percent to maintain its student quality, Zearfoss said. “This cycle was the toughest I’ve been through and that my colleagues I’m talking to have been through. We’ve basically reached the smallest number of people who can apply and still be able to put together a class. I had a harder time finding the candidates I wanted.”
Even if the applicant pool grows next year, law schools won’t see a return to the prerecession days, when many had more qualified candidates than available seats, said Blake Morant (right), dean of George Washington University Law School and president of the Association of American Law Schools.
“People are seeing signs that the market has bottomed out, but it’s not going to be a return to business as usual,” he said. “I sense that things are leveling off, but schools must continue to innovate and introduce new programs to succeed.”