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.