For updates, see my series of posts on recent trends in law school admissions.
The Law School Admission Council just released the number of February 2012 LSAT-takers, and it's low. In fact, fewer students sat for the February 2012 LSAT than for any LSAT administration in over 10 years.
What's more, the number of LSATs administered in this past admission cycle as a whole was the lowest it's been in over 10 years. In the biggest percentage decrease ever, the number of LSATs administered this cycle dropped by over 16%.
This is a major turn of events. The tide is turning, folks.
You see, for most of the past decade, the number of LSAT test administrations was somewhere in the neighborhood of 142,000 per year. Then, in sudden reaction to the recession (or to Netflix's acquisition of old Law & Order episodes), we saw a major spike in LSAT administrations - the highest number of LSATs ever administered in a single admission cycle (just over 170,000). This represented a 13.3% increase in LSATs administered over the previous year. It looked like the lawyer glut was going to become unimaginably worse, but something changed.
The eager stampede to law school stopped slowly, then all at once.
However, rather than simply returning to the previous normal level of 143,000 administrations per year, give or take a few thousand, it plummeted. In this past cycle, just under 130,000 LSATs were administered - a level not seen since 2001. Here's the full set of numbers directly from the Law School Admission Council:
This raises a few questions:
1. What happened?
2. What does this mean for current applicants, law schools, and the legal job market?
3. Is this the new normal?
1. What happened?
There's a simple explanation: college graduates and other victims of the recession sought refuge in law school to wait for an economic recovery, but it turned out that it wasn't the safe haven they were expecting. As a result, there aren't as many new applicants.
Why such a big drop? The obvious answer is the current state of the legal market. First, it was exhaustively covered by blogs (from law school scam blogs and Law School Transparency to industry heavyweight Above The Law), then by the mainstream media itself (notably the New York Times, beginning with this article). The resulting flood of articles has undoubtedly had an impact.
However, the number of LSATs administered doesn't tell the full story. The LSAT itself teaches us that statistics can be misleading, and LSAT-related statistics are no different.
The June 2009 LSAT was accompanied by a policy change from the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). It dictated that test-takers had to decide at least 3 weeks before the test date whether they were taking it, whether they were postponing to a later date, or whether they were canceling their test registration altogether. Previously, test-takers could postpone their exam even on the day of the test itself.
LSAC had its reasons, but it undoubtedly had the effect of significantly increasing the number of tests administered over the two-year period in which it was in place (the 2009-10 and 2010-11 cycles). Within the 3 weeks between the postponement deadline and the test date, many registered test-takers faced issues such as illness, jittery nerves, or a change of life plans. Having already paid for a particular test administration, many decided to go ahead and take it for the experience anyway, then immediately cancel the score and take it again in the following administration.
Then, starting with the June 2011 LSAT, the LSAC changed its policy yet again, allowing students to withdraw their test registrations up to the day before the test. (It also came with a new photo requirement, which may have discouraged vampires and other less-photogenic prospective applicants from sitting for the exam). And now we're seeing far fewer LSATs administered.
There's no question that the economy and the legal job market are largely responsible for the erratic swings in the numbers of tests administered per cycle, but these policy changes impacting test-takers' decisions whether to sit for the exam have undoubtedly had some impact as well.
2. What does this mean for prospective applicants, law schools, and the legal job market?
Fewer LSATs administered, fewer LSAT-takers, and fewer law school applicants make for a less competitive cycle for prospective applicants. While LSAC hasn't posted the full numbers for this past cycle just yet, it looks like they'll be continuing the downward trend in applicant numbers.
However, admission to the top-14 law schools will always be competitive, and admission to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford will always be extremely competitive, no matter their order in the rankings.
For law schools, it can only be bad news. A smaller pool of applicants means fewer test-takers with 165+ and 170+ scores to help them boost their rankings. Law schools have become accustomed to the flood of tuition dollars. Some have even been expanding their facilities. They'll be looking to fill those seats, and they may have to take a hit to their LSAT medians in order to do so.
In other words, applicants might be able to gain admission to a particular law school with a slightly lower LSAT score than previously possible. Law schools will do everything in their power to avoid this, of course, but if the applicant pool shrinks enough, they may have no choice. Law schools might invest more in merit aid to court high-scorers, and they might devote even less attention to soft factors (everything besides LSAT/GPA) than they already do.
The turning of the tide will have limited impact on the legal job market. The flood of law school matriculants from the past 3 years has yet to graduate, and they'll be hungry for work. And let's not forget all the unemployed and underemployed lawyers and recent graduates. It's not as if anyone's waved a magic wand to solve the fundamental problems facing the legal field.
3. Is this the new normal?
Only time will tell, but I'm guessing it is. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
For further reading, see my series of posts on recent trends in law school admissions.