April 19, 2012 3:57 PM

What the Numbers Don’t Say: Law School Applicants Are Getting Older, Not Dumber

Posted by Matt Leichter

By far the most stubborn stereotype about law school applicants is that they are all twenty-something lemmings too naïve to comprehend that pursuing a legal education is likely to permanently impoverish them.

True, applicants in their early twenties play a major role in every application cycle, but most people writing on the subject don’t know the age distribution of a typical class of law school applicants. This is unfortunate because it adds quite a bit of complexity to the wave of news stories about the latest Law School Admission Council’s (LSAC) Current Volume Summary, which shows a notable drop not only in the number of applicants but also in the number of applicants with high LSAT scores, data the LSAC only started providing this year. 

First, here’s a quick summary of the most recent Current Volume Summary:

01 No. Applicants by LSAT Score 3-30-1202 Pct Change, No. Applicants by LSAT Score 3-30-12It’s not hard to look at this and assume that the “smart” applicants got the message about crushing debt and poor job prospects in the legal field and decided to not bother applying when their scores were too low, while the “dumb” ones are lemmings as ever. The 20.7 percent drop in the 170-174 range makes it appear that many applicants refuse to settle for anything short of the near-perfect LSAT score the most reputable programs demand.

But just who isn’t applying to law school? Contrary to what the ABA Journal, The Atlantic, or Above the Law tell us, the demographic that’s not applying isn’t so much “smart” as it is “young.” The LSAC has done some research on the topic that’s illuminating for those interested in what’s really going on.

In 2010, the LSAC published a report (PDF) titled, “Analysis of Law School Applicants by Age Group: ABA Applicants 2005-2009.” Using the data on page 3, here’s the percentage breakdown of applicants by age group.

03 Pct Applicants by Age Bracket 2005-09Over the five-year period surveyed, slightly more than half of all applicants were under 25, yet about 20 percent were over 29. The table on page 8 shows that older applicants’ median LSAT scores (in 2009) were lower than younger takers’, and they sent fewer applications as well.

Finally, more than half of all applicants over the age of 30 were not admitted to any law school, and those who were accepted were less likely to matriculate than younger applicants. In all likelihood, people in these age groups apply to part-time programs rather than full-time ones, accounting for 15 percent of all students and 11 percents of ABA law school graduates in 2010, according to the Official Guide.

How do we know that today’s applicants are disproportionately older? It should be clear from the chart and the table above: Half of all applicants over the age of 29 have a median LSAT of 149 or lower. This chunk of the applicant pool declined only 9.5 percent in 2012 while the remainder fell 17.3 percent. There’s no reason to believe that older applicants account for the slight drop in these low-end LSAT brackets. Also, look at the number of applications per applicant. Younger people send out more applications, which is intuitive: People who are more geographically mobile and have more promising credentials are more likely to seek and receive scholarship offers that greatly reduce the cost of legal education. For them, sending out more applications is more likely to pay off.

Here’s the number of applicants and applications per applicant over the course of the application cycle since fall 2008, based on Current Volume Summary archives. These are periodically updated on Fridays, so I’ve standardized them by numbering the weeks of the year (ISO 8601 standard). Weeks 47-48 correspond to the last week in November, March/April is usually week 13, and week 32 is the first week of August. Some years have 53 weeks.

04 No. Applicants over App CycleYou can see just how much 2012 differs from previous years; even 2011 looks typical.

05 Applications Per Applicants over App CycleToday’s applicants are sending out more applications on average than in previous years, probably due to an increased ability to transmit them electronically. Technology aside, this makes sense since the largest numeric decline in applicants has been in the middle of the LSAT distribution, i.e. the people who would normally send out three to four applications as opposed to part-time applicants who send out only one and high-scoring people who send out many. These middle-range applicants tend to be young as well, given that the median LSAT for those under 25 is 154-155.

06 Numeric Decline in Applicants by LSAT Score 3-30-12What does this add to our knowledge of the 2012 application cycle? Two things:

First, the people who are not applying to law school are probably young people with mediocre LSAT scores who would have sent out only a handful of applications, mostly to regional schools. Although, the 20.7 percent drop in the 170-174 band is higher than I would’ve expected. Over all, this suggests that the “right” people—the stereotypical lemmings who think they’ll earn overflowing cash sacks as lawyers—are getting the message, contrary to what the media coverage would have us believe.

Second, the 20 percent of the applicant pool that’s over 29 and whose median LSAT score is under 150 (10 percent of all applicants) has probably declined less than other age groups. Although the value proposition of part-time programs differs greatly from full-time ones, I suspect most part-time programs don’t provide much value even at their reduced cost. This suggests older applicants haven’t gotten “the message,” but, importantly it wasn’t really delivered to them in the first place, unless they read esoteric scam blogs such as Super-Duper: The Non-traditional Law Student Confidence Game.

The implication of this is that 2012 will be a more disappointing application cycle for law schools than it already appears. Law schools will have to compromise in terms of accepting more people from the 30-and-over crowd who are already a higher academic risk indicated by their low LSAT scores and tendency to matriculate at lower rates. There’s also a good chance that a higher number of young applicants will decline to matriculate if they don’t receive scholarship offers.

On the other hand, I believe those who see this as the market correction are mistaken; although the system is on the cusp of tuition deflation, it would more accurately be described as “partial deflation.” Consider what’s happened until this application cycle: scam blogs, a high-profile New York Times series, announced changes in graduate survey reporting requirements, two law schools caught manipulating their incoming class data, and fraud lawsuits filed against law schools. The result? A 23.8 percent projected reduction in applicants since the last peak in 2010. That may sound like a lot, but there will still be far more graduates in 2015 than lawyer jobs for them. (Note: I’m not a believer in the “versatile juris doctor” myth, but that’s a separate discussion.) 

In February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) updated its 10-year employment projections for all occupations, including lawyers. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of employed lawyers will grow from 728,200 to 801,800 (73,600 jobs), and 138,400 lawyers will be replaced. That’s an estimated 212,000 jobs over 10 years when the ABA law schools alone produce 44,000 graduates per year, though this figure will certainly decline. Worse, this projection is lower than BLS’ previous one.

08 No. Lawyers in the U.S. 1983-2020The employment projection assumes the economy is at full employment in 2020, meaning many of the job openings could be filled by experienced, currently underemployed practitioners rather than fresh graduates. Even if law schools start reducing their nominal tuition, legal education will still not be worth the effort for many prospective students.

In 2012, 67,000 applicants will compete for seats at law schools to work in 21,200 projected jobs in 2015 or later. It’s at this point that the law of diminishing returns  will kick in. Sure, in 2011 there was a 10 percent applicant decline followed by a projected 15 percent drop this year, but the decline will start decelerating in 2013. At least 45,000 people will apply to law school each year indefinitely. True, many will not be accepted—as always—but even a graduating class of 35,000 students (unseen since the 1980s) with an average student loan debt of $60,000 (rather than $97,000) is still 75 percent more than necessary and unlikely to be paid off in an “old-normal” law career.

The only significant change that next year’s applicants will benefit from is access to better, standardized survey data on the fate of the class of 2011 nine months after graduation on a school-by-school basis. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it should deter some applicants from applying to underperforming schools, but on the other, law schools have plenty of advantages. They can continue to claim, despite evidence to the contrary, that the long-term value of a juris doctor is sound, or they may find other ways to manipulate the data. If New York Times coverage doesn’t discourage someone from applying, why would access to more accurate employment data? 

Finally, while it’s good that applicants are more mindful about the value of legal education, the victory is Pyrrhic. Now that MBA programs accept GRE scores, that test has seen a record number of takers, meaning that while poor employment prospects have deterred some people from law school, they may choose to apply to other graduate programs that offer questionable advancement instead. This just shifts higher education’s value problem onto other programs, an unsatisfying solution.

Matt Leichter is a writer and attorney licensed in Wisconsin and New York, and he holds a masters in International Affairs from Marquette University. He operates The Law School Tuition Bubble, which archives, chronicles, and analyzes the deteriorating American legal education system. It is also a platform for higher education and student debt reform.

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