The ABA House of Delegates approved final revisions to law school accreditation rules in August of this year. One of the most prominent changes to the standards is the “10 percent LSAT rule.” Law schools may now admit up to a tenth of their entering classes with students who did not take the test. Of course there’s no minimum LSAT score requirement for admissions to law schools anyway, but the acknowledgement that applicants don’t even need to take the test might appear to some to be radical. The new Interpretation 503-3 only allows applicants to forgo the LSAT if either (a) they’re undergraduates at the same institution to which they’re applying to law school, or (b) they’re seeking a dual degree at that institution. And in both cases, there are requirements for scores on standardized tests and undergraduate performance. But the new rule is in response to growing requests for waivers of an LSAT requirement, which may also reflect the evidence that performance on LSATs does not correlate with the successful practice of law.
Other changes seem less substantive but aimed at reducing costs. The recommendation to calculate full-time students to full-time faculty using a convoluted methodology has been eliminated. It appeared to only demonstrate how much law schools have grown their payrolls, doubling the number of professors to students over the last four decades. Law libraries were also liberated to allow “reliable access” to various sources, rather than their physical presence, allowing law schools to enter the 21st century of digital research.
Similarly, prior accreditation rules had mandated “an office for each full-time faculty member,” an outstanding example of the influence of law professors regardless of cost. The revised Standard 702(a)(4) merely requires “office space for full-time faculty members,” allowing for shared space rather than dedicated single offices. The new rules also require law schools attached to parent universities to receive an annual “accounting and explanation for all charges and costs assessed against resources generated by the law school and for any use of resources generated by the law school to support nonlaw school activities and central university services.” While law schools have long been a cash cow for their parent universities, at least now where the law school funds go won’t be a university secret anymore.
But this is tinkering around the edges. As Steven Harper recounts, the true crisis in the current law school model is not being addressed by ABA regulators or the law schools themselves. Only half of all those graduating from law school in 2012 found full-time long-term jobs requiring a J.D. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report indicates that between December 2012 and December 2013, employment in the “all legal services” category actually declined by 1,000 people. Yet as the profession was losing 1,000 jobs last year, law schools graduated a record number of new lawyers—46,000—with more large classes in the pipeline and the ABA has accredited the opening of additional law schools. Recently revised BLS estimates suggest an ongoing lawyer glut for years to come. On top of that, 85% of those graduating from law school–including the many not finding any legal jobs–are carrying six-figure law school debt, which is federally backed for the benefit of the law schools but nondischargeable by its students.
The market is somewhat unresponsive, and law school applications are down–the overall number of applicants to all law schools dropped dramatically from 87,500 in 2010 to 59,400 in 2013, but law schools’ acceptance rates have gone way up to compensate (see Matt Leichter’s Am Law Daily article) and law school tuition keeps increasing by leaps bearing no relation to inflation.
What’s to be done? Educators continue to discuss whether the third year of law school is necessary. Many schools have two-year programs but they just cram the same work into a shorter time period. The really big reform—eliminating the third year altogether—isn’t happening because accreditation rules prevent it. Harper points to the recently accredited Elon University School of Law as a prime example of the forces driving our current model. Elon announced last month that it is offering a 7 -trimester law degree, which in its press release it calls a “groundbreaking new model” of legal education. But this ground-breaker comes at a higher price tag per term so that the law school makes out better (and the student worse) under the reduced time frame, as Harper has pointed out. True to form, Elon’s record-high first-year enrollment of 132 students in 2010 carried tuition of $30,750 a year, but enrollment in 2013 fell to 20% less students (with worse credentials) and tuition increased to almost $38,000 a year. And the school plans to recover losses from their new shorter 7-trimester time frame by adding more students.
As Harper concludes, “Imagine the consequences if every law school that currently places fewer than one-third of its graduates in full-time long-term J.D.-required jobs were to increase enrollment by 20-30 percent… For the profession, that would be like accelerating in reverse gear toward a brick wall.”