Here we are into another application-to-law-school season and there are hopes that the numbers are starting to look up. After all, the news over the last few years–the lower number of applicants to law school (declining over 40% to the lowest level in 15 years), the low enrollment rate (2014’s was the lowest since 1987), the lower graduation rate (also down), and the lower rate of those passing the bar (the lowest in some states in 27 years), all culminating in the employment rate for law grads falling in 2014 for the sixth consecutive year–are unsettling statistics for an industry premised on providing over-the-top excellence from the best of the best.
And matters may actually get worse. In an effort to maintain enrollment, Pace Law School in New York is matching the tuition at state schools, and the State University of New York-Buffalo Law School and the University of Iowa College of Law announced they would not require the LSAT for applications from top students from their undergraduate schools (although the ABA caps the percentage of LSAT-less matriculants at schools at 10 percent of a first-year class.). Another tactic, favored by the majority of law schools, is simply to lower admissions standards. “Nine in 10 law schools have allowed LSAT scores of students in the bottom quartile to drop–meaning those whose scores are already the lowest of the class are getting even worse,” according to a report by the nonprofit that creates part of the Bar Exam.
Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University School of Law, which has cut its first-year class size by 19 percent since 2011, says he pushed for the school to slim its classes partly because, with fewer jobs available, he thought it was “irresponsible” to keep taking in so many new students.
That’s the way the ABA Rules look. Standard 501 of the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools 2015-2016 states that “a school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”
The ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is responsible for enforcing this standard. Unfortunately, for the past five years while law school admissions standards have plummeted, the Council has shown no willingness to use this standard to protect unqualified applicants from being admitted to law school when they have poor prospects of actually becoming a lawyer.
According to Council Chair Justice Rebecca White Berch, “the Council is working on revising the Standards to make them clearer and more easily enforceable.”
In the meantime, the legal field is squarely on the horns of an existential dilemma: do the increasingly lower GPAs, LSAT scores, number of applicants, percentage of applicants admitted, and percentage of graduates passing the bar all undermine the cream-of-the-crop position–as in, we only hire the cream of the crop, which is what makes us so smart/effective/successful?
What exactly is the pitch now of legal employers who are in fact hiring only the cream of a vastly dumbed-down crop, if you will? Now are we of the opinion that it only takes a much less smart person than we previously extolled to be a great lawyer? That technology is supplementing our expertise to such an extent that the human factor is less significant? That the legal robot coming online will make up for any deficits in our skills? That it all comes down to marketing in any event?
Add the impact on the profession of these less competitive newcomers to the loss the industry is already suffering of so many lawyers who had high LSATs, GPAs and law school standings in years past–i.e., women, who are leaving the profession in droves and not looking back, along with a sizable number of male lawyers, as well.
Recently a senior partner at a BigLaw firm assured me that they had no concerns–the Ivys were still churning out enough high performers to stock the top-of-the-line firms. And maybe he’s confident for good reason. Many would argue that the most elite law schools remain just as competitive or even more competitive.
But the drop in applications is evident there as well, making a less-well-pedigreed student body than in years past, regardless of how competitive it is once they are in law school. Since 2011, the number of applicants to law schools ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News has dropped by a median 18%: Yale Law School’s applications dipped 13%, Harvard Law School’s 18%. Columbia, Cornell, Berkeley, NYU, Virginia, UCLA, and USC all saw their applications drop by more than 20%.
“The most urgent challenge facing the top schools is that applications from students with the highest test scores have declined. In 2010, 12,177 people with the highest scores on the LSAT (165 and above, the highest possible score being 180) applied to law school. By 2015, only 6,667 people with those scores applied,” or roughly half.
A link has never been established between GPAs, LSATs, and law school standing nor between any of those factors and success in legal practice. Will we now finally start valuing, admitting and hiring for emotional intelligence, the one well-documented advantage that even someone with lower traditional testing credentials might bring to the legal game?
We can either continue to contend that we are the-smartest-of-the-brood or we can take the position that we are still good lawyers, even though our pedigree stats aren’t as impressive, for the right reasons.
Or, hey, with lower standards, maybe this is a good time to apply to law school.