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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Visible Deterioration of Law School Quality

Brian Tamanaha

A red flag is signaling the potential deterioration of quality at a significant number of law schools. LSAT medians rise and fall by a point or two over time at many law schools, usually in conjunction with changes in the size of the overall applicant pool and the standing of a particular school. That in itself is not a concern—problems arise, however, when law schools accept students who would not have gained admission in years past. Applicants with low LSAT/GPA scores, in particular, have a higher risk of failing out and a higher risk of not passing the bar exam.

Rapidly rising acceptance rates provide ample reason to worry. A decade ago, for the entering class of 2003, only 4 law schools accepted 50% or more of their applicants (the highest at 55.4%).

Jump ahead to 2009, when 35 law schools admitted 50% or more of their applicants to the entering class. Within this total, at 31 law schools the acceptance rate was between 50% and 59%; 4 schools accepted between 60% and 69%, and zero law schools accepted 70% or above.

2011 showed deterioration at the worst levels of acceptance rates. A total of 42 law schools accepted 50% or more of their applicants, broken down as follows: 29 schools accepted between 50% and 59%; 7 schools accepted between 60% and 69%; 5 schools accepted between 70% and 79%; one law school accepted 80.1% (Cooley).

2012 took a big step down in selectivity: 82 law schools accepted 50% or more of their applicants—that’s nearly double the previous year, amounting to about 40% of accredited law schools. Among these law schools, 43 accepted between 50% and 59% of applicants; 23 accepted between 60% and 69%; 13 law schools accepted between 70% and 79%; and 3 accepted more than 80%. The highest in the country was New England School of Law, which accepted 89%--nine out of ten people who applied to NESL last year got in. (Vermont and Phoenix also topped 80%.)

The most worrisome aspect of this deterioration is that a truly severe crunch is set to hit law schools this coming year: the number of applicants for entry in 2013 will be around 55,000, substantially down from 68,000 applicants for the class of 2012. (More than 55,000 applicants have been accepted annually by law schools in the aggregate in recent years.) It is likely that more than 100 law schools nationwide will accept 50% or more of their applicants (20 schools accepted between 45% and 49% in 2012), and several dozen law schools will accept two-thirds or more of their applicants. This will likely occur even if law schools shrink their entering classes, as many will have little choice but to do. (I explore the implications of these developments in Chapter 13 of Failing Law Schools.) Declining admissions standards will be manifested in lower bar pass rates in coming years at these law schools, as has already occurred with Thomas Jefferson.

Over two dozen law schools have seen painful declines in selectivity in the past decade. For example, New England School of Law accepted 37.2% of applicants in 2003, compared to 89% in 2012. (John O’Brien, the dean of NESL, who reportedly earns in excess of $800,000 annually, is the immediate past Chair of the ABA Section on Legal Education.) In the same ten year period, Suffolk went from 40.2% to 74%; John Marshall (Chicago) from 35.9% to 63%; Thomas Jefferson from 38.7% to 73%, and so on.

Acceptance rate is a measure of selectivity (although it can be artificially manipulated) because the deeper a law school digs into the applications pile, the lower the caliber of students it lets in, at least by LSAT/GPA measures. A number of law schools appear headed toward near open admissions for the upcoming entering class.

Comments:

Professor Tamanaha,

Would that be the same John O'Brien under whose *leadership* ABA Section on Legal Education ultimately vetoed the proposal to include salary information in the 2011-present employment outcomes, despite pressure from Senator Grassley? Of the same New England Law Boston that has had only 3 or 4 graduates join large law firms since 2011, and whose tuition is now the equal of Harvard or BC's?
 

I've been wondering how the bar exam administrators will react in 3-4 years time. Lower LSATs will presumably result in lower MBE exam peformance and lower overall credentials will presumably result in worse performance on the essay portions.

Will the bars hold to historical standards and reject record numbers of exam takers? Or will the bars keep passing the same percentage of exam takers? If it's the former . . .
 

Professor, you're missing a big factor here in the increased acceptance rate - the large increase in the number of applications per applicant. In 2003, 98,300 applicants submitted 522,800 applications, or 5.3 applications per applicant. In 2012, 68,000 applicants submitted 469,600 applications, or 6.9 per applicant.

To put it another way, if students had applied with the same frequency in 2012 as they did in 2003, law schools would have received only 360,400 applications, or 109,200 fewer than they actually did. If rates had stayed constant, the accept rate would have been significantly lower.

Steven Freedman

 

Steven, it still comes down to 55,000/98,000 vs 55,000/68,000.
That's 56% vs 81%.

 

Oh, and for the bottom half, they've *got* to be suffering, since applicants will now get into schools which would have turned them down before. The bottom half will have some combination of lowering tuition rates, cutting seats (and gross revenues) and accepting people who are highly likely to flunk out/fail the bar.
 

Barry - I think your formulas are a bit off. In 2003, law schools enrolled 46,200 students from 98,300 applicants (47%). In 2012, an estimated 41,000 students enrolled from an app pool of 68,000(68%).

Listen, I absolutely agree that the declining applicant pool will result in schools being less selective with a higher acceptance rate. I also agree it's a situation worthy of discussion. It's just you overestimate the impact by referencing school acceptance rates without factoring in the increased number of applications per applicant. It's simple math. SF
 

Steven,

I am aware of the increase in applications owing to electronic applications. I don't mention it because it does not change the bottom line: how many applicants there are relative to how many seats law schools are trying to fill.

This year there will be about 55,000 applicants--law schools have accepted more than 55,000 applicants every year for the past decade (although 2012 acceptance figures have not yet been published by LSAC). That alone is a compelling indication that law schools will dig deep in the applicant pool (even with shrinkage).

This means that people with low LSAT/GPAs will get in this year who would have been denied admissions in years past. That is the point of my post--which you appear to accept.
 

Steve,

Barry's numbers purport represent the ratio of acceptances to applicants; your numbers represent the ratio of enrolled acceptances to applicants. Because a substantial number of accepted applicants do not enroll, there is no reason to think either your numbers or Barry's numbers are wrong.

LSAC tracks both applications and applicants, and though it is true that the number of applications per applicant has risen, it does not follow as a matter of simple math (at least as I understand it) that acceptance rates rise as an artifact of the increased number of applications per applicant. We do not know how those extra applications are distributed -- do those students apply to two more stretch schools, mid range schools, or fallback schools? Are the students who apply to more law schools than in past years distributed randomly throughout the applicant pool, or do they cluster within one or more ranges within the pool? If I'm a higher LSAT student, I might apply to HYS this year because I think the decreased number of applicants increases my chance for a stretch admission, but I may not apply to more lower ranked schools since I can expect my application to a lower ranked school to be that much more of a sure thing in a declining market. If I allocate my two extra applications to HYS as stretch schools, then acceptance rates at HYS will fall, not rise, as an artifact of the increased number of stretch applications to those schools. Without knowing much more about how the increased number of applications are distributed among applicants and among law schools, it seems to me that no conclusion can be drawn about how the increase in applications per applicant will affect acceptance rates at any particular school.

Mike
 

Steve,

Like Mike, I don't get your "simple math" assertion. But let me come at it another way. If I recall correctly, the increase in the number applications per applicant that you mention took place about 7 or so years ago. What that means is that the recent deterioration I show from 2009, to 2010, to 2011, are all based upon the same higher average number of applications.

So your point, even if it does has some bearing (and I'm not clear that it does, pace Mike), has no relevance to the dramatic increase in acceptance rates at many law schools in the past few years.
 

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I absolutely agree that the declining applicant pool will result in schools being less selective with a higher acceptance rate. I also agree it's a situation worthy of discussion. It's just you overestimate the impact by referencing school acceptance rates without factoring in the increased number of applications per applicant. It's simple math.
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In 2003, 98,300 applicants submitted 522,800 applications, or 5.3 applications per applicant. In 2012, 68,000 applicants submitted 469,600 applications, or 6.9 per applicant.

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