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Friday, June 23, 2017

The exodus of high-band LSAT students

This is an extraordinary graph.

It describes the big decline in applicants in the high band of LSAT scores.  Of course, these are the students who would be admitted to top law schools and/or strong performing law schools with significant merit scholarships.  In short, the most sought after students are saying "no thanks" to law school.  

This is one of the two big, and often neglected, stories in contemporary law student enrollment & recruitment.  (The other is the spiraling discount rate resulting from the increasing arms race among reasonably well-resourced law schools for a smaller pool of students).

The AALS has embarked on an ambitious "before the JD" study to explore how college students and graduates are thinking about law school and the prospects for success (on many relevant measures) in the profession.  Presumably other investigations, some empirical, some more speculative, are underway.  Without claiming that the high band exodus is more important to consider than other phenomena at work in applicant and enrollment patterns, it is an interesting question nonetheless.  How do students who would, ceteris paribus, come to law school with less debt and/or more professional choice still move away from law school toward other options, educationally, professionally, or otherwise?  It his a story about obstinate law schools? About the success of greater transparency or, if you want to see it this way, anti-law school invective?  Or about the state of the legal profession?  

These are questions which obviously loom large for those leading and working in law schools.  Yet they are also relevant if and insofar as one believes that a robust legal profession and a continuing commitment to the rule of law and access to justice depends upon very accomplished college graduates seriously considering legal education.  Even if one is highly critical of students choosing law school, we should better understand why students do or do not make this choice.  Plenty of folks have a dog in this fight and so we need not feign pure objectivity.  But we can agree that data and empirical analysis is warranted and timely so ask to illuminate these important issues.

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on June 23, 2017 at 10:05 AM in Daniel Rodriguez, Life of Law Schools | Permalink

Comments

I agree that this is interesting (I'm not sure how neglected it really is) and worthy of inquiry. With your last paragraph in mind, I will add that it's far from clear to me that it's bad news for the individuals or for society. One question that occurs to me on reading this and that I think *is* neglected is why they bothered to take the LSAT in the first place.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 23, 2017 10:51:23 AM

I agree that this is interesting (I'm not sure how neglected it really is) and worthy of inquiry. With your last paragraph in mind, I will add that it's far from clear to me that it's bad news for the individuals or for society. One question that occurs to me on reading this and that I think *is* neglected is why they bothered to take the LSAT in the first place.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 23, 2017 10:51:27 AM

Valuable thoughts, Dan. I'll offer three brief(ish) observations.

First, apart from any purported "negative" publicity about law school or the legal profession, I imagine (emphasis on imagine) there are simply many different incentives among college students these days. More college students are graduating with higher levels of undergraduate student debt, and law school debt seems less attractive on top of it; more students are moving into STEM or other "practical" majors, draining from the humanities core that typically fed law schools; more students have better job opportunities from these majors or from a college degree than they did in recent recession-era years, which, given their larger undergraduate debt, are more attractive.

Second, I think the "transparency" or "anti-law school invective" has had a limited impact on the, say, 20-year-olds considering the LSAT, and much more on the pre-law advisors at colleges around the country. In my extremely limited (yes, anecdotal) conversations with a few such advisors, they are deeply negative on advising their students to attend law school. And they are the pre-law advisors--the ones who we might expect would be most bullish! Years ago, a thoughtful colleague at another institution mused that we were ending the era of "free recruiting" that pre-law advisors provided--where they glowingly encouraged masses of students to take the LSAT and go to law school. This is a remarkable and dramatic change, and it's not obvious to me that law schools have adjusted. That is, the positive case for law school is not really being made by law schools to undergraduate students (pace sending an admissions representative to staff a table at a pre-law fair).

Third, and here I note Paul's comment, I recall a line from Justice Scalia in 2009, "we're wasting some of our best minds" on lawyers. For many in legal education, the "brain drain" is a major problem--for USNWR entering class statistics, for bar pass rates, for attracting legal employers to hiring graduates. But I imagine there are many out there who think that the balance has been too many disproportionately *good* people entering law school. I'm not sure that's true, but it's worth noting that the problem is a problem to us in legal education, but a real gift to the industries where those people are otherwise headed.

Posted by: Derek Muller | Jun 23, 2017 11:41:24 AM

I agree with Paul Horwitz: I don't know whether this is a good trend or a bad one. It's bad for law schools, of course, but I'm not sure it's bad for the world.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 23, 2017 12:18:56 PM

With respect to Paul Horowitz's comment, you do not know from these data that the brightest students even took the LSAT. All the table and graph say is that the percentage of law school applicants who scored at the high end of the LSAT scale has decreased. It says nothing about the percentage of test takers that actually applied to a law school. These results may be because the brightest students are shying away from law school and never took the LSAT at all. Or it may be indicative of the declining quality of undergraduates in general. Or it may be due to changes (assuming there were any) in the LSAT.

Posted by: Phil | Jun 23, 2017 12:49:17 PM

Isn't the LSAT normalized?

The LSAC doesn't give a ton of detail about its normalization ("equating") process, but the cliffs notes version seems to be that they recognize and measure slight variations in difficulty from one test sitting to another (i.e. you may need to miss a slightly different number of questions to get the same score in May versus in March), but over time, and certainly over a multi-year horizon, I believe the scores are normalized so that in the long run they always fall out into the same bell curve over the 120-180 scaled score range.

I could be wrong about this, and I'd welcome anyone with more information correcting me! It's a pretty important question whether they do this or not.

If they do, then the group of test takers scoring, say, 170+, CANNOT grow or shrink over time, because, to put it simply, whichever group of test takers misses the fewest questions on the test, are going to be given those scores. Over the long run at least, the percentage of test takers given those scores does not vary. If this is right, then the only way it is possible for the enrolled law school classes to show a decline in the "high band" would be for an increased number of students who take the LSAT, and do well, to decide not to go to any law school.

There are a lot of reasons this might happen. For instance, to lay out a slightly stylized scenario, suppose you have a rise in test-taking among top students, where students who might formerly take only one test out of the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT, now choose to take two or three of those tests, while they are still deciding what kind of further education to pursue. The students' school destinations remain completely unchanged: some go to grad school, some to business school, and some to law school, in the same ratios as before, but now more of the grad students and business students have taken the LSAT and done really well. They don't go to law school. Voila: the observed decline in the high band of LSAT-scoring law school applicants, with ZERO change in the actual population of students attending law school (just a mild depression in their LSAT scores due to more high-scoring non-law-school-attenders nudging the curve downward).

To be clear: I am not saying this little story I just told is what's happening. It's just an illustration to make a point. What I am saying is that if LSAT scores are normalized the way I think they are, then explanations need to be something other than "the top students are not even taking the LSAT in the first place" because that would not produce the high band decline that is being observed.

Posted by: Joey Fishkin | Jun 23, 2017 3:06:44 PM

These percentages become more striking when converted into raw numbers.

Total number of applicants with 160+ LSAT scores:

2010: 35,900

2017: 14,065

Total number of applicants with sub-150 LSAT scores:

2010: 12,350

2017: 18,725

So the total number of highly qualified applicants has declined by 61%, while the size of the weakest part of the applicant pool has increased by 50% in absolute terms in 150% relative to the size of the pool as a whole.

Posted by: Paul Campos | Jun 23, 2017 6:24:47 PM

These comments convey in agonizing detail why the legal academy is doomed.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 26, 2017 4:03:37 PM

These comments convey in agonizing detail why the legal academy is doomed.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 26, 2017 4:03:38 PM

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