The Kind Of Law School Not To Go To Right Now

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Last week I talked about why T14s and other high-ranking, deep-pocketed schools are the best bet for your money right now. These schools can afford to lure potential students with lots of scholarship aid, so you want to get on the receiving end if you can. For contrast, this week we look at an under-performer as an example of the kind of school that you should likely stay away from right now.

wile-e-coyote-forgets-a-cliff

American University is walking off a cliff.

Applications to law school are way down over the past few years and still falling fast. Faced with the sharp drop, schools have generally had to pick one or more of the following strategies to keep afloat and attract students: 1. reduce class size, 2. raise incentives (pay out more scholarship money) or otherwise lower attendance costs, or 3. lower admissions standards.

Most observers agree that the responsible option is to pursue a mix of 1 and 2. This has the benefit that the school is sending fewer students out in to a glutted job market, and it allows the school to stay selective, making a drop in the USNWR rankings less likely. Mind you, everyone has had to lower admissions standards a tiny bit (there are just fewer strong applicants out there), but with a good dose of option 1 and 2, there is a good chance that a school can keep its LSAT and GPA medians around where they were before applications plummeted.

The 1 and 2 mix will be good for students. While we might be a long way from a healthy system of legal education, fewer law students paying less to attend is movement in the right direction. The problem is that schools don’t profit as much when they reduce class size and lower costs. Enter American University College of Law with a “solution.” Notorious bad-boy law professor Paul Campos skewered them on his blog recently for taking the low road in order to maintain profitability.

American University is choosing to deal with the application drop problem exclusively through option 3- lowering admissions standards.
Campos writes:

The median LSAT for the entering class has declined from the 86th to the 70th percentile in just two years, and, even more tellingly, since 2009 the 25th percentile for full-time matriculants has fallen a startling seven points — from 160 (the 80.4 percentile) to 153, which is barely above average for LSAT takers (55.6%). (Source)

American is the kind of law school that you should be VERY leery of attending right now. American is crazy expensive already and they apparently aren’t pouring more money into scholarships (60% of the class is paying full tuition). What they have done is stubbornly keep their class size and profit margin the same even though that has meant switching from a very selective institution to a barely selective one  in the course of a few years. Presumably they are still selling students on the school they were rather than the one they are now. I see no mention of a change in vision anywhere in their public materials.

What American is doing will hurt its future graduates: the school’s ranking and reputation will slide (this is already happening), worsening their student’s already less-than-stellar employment prospects. It’s the opposite of what a responsible law school should be doing.

It’s one thing if a law school doesn’t have the money to pay out big scholarships. A school can’t be condemned for a small endowment. However, they should be reducing class size and looking for other ways to cut costs. American isn’t doing any of this.

Luckily, students have a choice about where to go. Right now they are better off attending other schools that are taking the high road.

It’s simple comparison shopping: at American you are paying the same price you would have before the recession for a product that has lost a lot of its underlying value and is going to lose more.  Even if you pay the same price elsewhere, do it at a school that’s doing what it can to keep its value by cutting class size and reducing cost. (Note I wish I could point you to a school that is reducing cost for EVERYONE, not just the scholarship recipients. I’ll keep looking.)

Be wary of schools any schools doing what American is doing. Better yet, just stay away from them. A school that is focused on bare profitability is not the kind of law school to go to right now.

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14 Comments

  1. Hello Josh and Evan,

    First of all – I love your site. I wanted to self-prep and all of your information really gave me the confidence to do so. However, my cold diagnostic was not as high as I wanted it to be (149).
    I’m only applying to one T14 (Cornell), but with a 3.5 GPA, is it even worth a try? I have a great internship in a prosecutor’s office that I have continued into a second semester and I have a unique background to detail in my personal statement. Thoughts?

    • Joshua Craven and Evan Jones on

      Yes, with a 3.5 Cornell is perfectly achievable. A 169 or better would give you good chances. Soft factors help, but you need to get the numbers to make it happen.

  2. I am also looking to apply to Cornell and Syracuse. I finish my undergrad in May and currently have a 3.78 GPA. I did graduate with an associates a few years ago in which I had low grades my first year of attendance (which was about 10 years ago). On my summary is says degree GPA 3.78 and cumulative 3.16. Which number will schools look at? I just took my LSAT and an awaiting my scores. I was testing at home at a 149-150. Also I am a senior manager at a nonprofit that I have worked at for 13 years. Will that help? What are my chances of getting into either of these schools?

    • Jamie.

      Your chances at Cornell are very very low if your score comes back close to your practice average. Under-represented minority applicants might have chances there with LSAT scores in the high 150s or better. Non-URMs typically need an LSAT score at least in the 160s for a chance of admission. With your GPA, a 165 LSAT would make you almost a sure thing.

      That said, you have a very different background than most applicants, and there is always the possibility that they take you as a wildcard. That said, if Cornell is your dream, you really should retake, do everything you can to boost your score, and get it into the 160s.

      Your chances at Syracuse will be fairly high if you get any LSAT score better than a 150. That said, 149-150 is a low LSAT score. Typically we would recommend retaking. How much did you study for this past LSAT if you don’t mind me asking? A 150 score indicates significant problems with accuracy. Usually test takers scoring in that range can boost their score quite a bit with proper LSAT study.

      • I studied about three months. I tried to put in about 2 hrs a day on the weekdays and about four hours on the weekends. It’s difficult to put more in than that due to my job and family obligations. What really gave me a hard time was the logic games. I got the blueprint book and that helped but I am just so slow in working through them. That section is what really ruins my score. If my score is low I am going to retake the LSAT in December.

        • Here are my thoughts on that: if you retake, I would push it to February. 35 days is not a lot of time to make significant improvement. I would restart by doing A LOT of untimed problems, esp. logic games, until your accuracy is nearly perfect. Some speed should build during that process. After that, we could add the timing component and see where you are at.

          I know family and work makes it tough, but you could actually study on a much more leisurely schedule now until Feb and likely have better results than if you go all out studying for the Dec test.

          This may not be your ideal plan for other reasons, but I firmly believe it’s the better strategy as far as the LSAT is concerned. You are actually lucky that LG is your worst section. It is the easiest to improve if you go about it right. I’m happy to help at any stage of the process.

  3. This is a strong article guys. You raise some excellent points that we, regrettably, neglected to cover in our most recent article on selecting a law school. Price, is a glaringly obvious consideration, class size less so, but it’s obviously going to impact upon delivery of the service you’re paying for.

    • Thanks guys. Yes, a smaller class size isn’t important in and of itself. Harvard is fine having a big class because they can get their students jobs. American is not Harvard. Almost without exception schools below the t14 should be cutting class size right now. If they aren’t doing it at least a little, it’s likely an indication of unhealthy practices that will hurt the school and its students down the road. That’s what we are warning students to look for.

  4. The kind of law school you should not go to? The kind that you have to finance through debt. The legal job market is awful. If you’re thinking about law school, know that ALL law schools lie about post-grad employment stats. It’s just a game they all play.

    But if you’re applying to law school post 2010, I’m worried about your mental competency. This industry is falling apart.

  5. Wow. You weren’t kidding.

    Mid-forties…to mid-fifies…to 72!!!!
    (USNWR)

    They wait-listed me, by the way, and I’m above both 75th percentile marks.

  6. Great article, Josh! Thank you for shining a light on American Law! I agree with you–using just tactic #3 of lowering your admissions standards is NOT the way to go.

    Your article is a good warning to all applicants to take a much closer look at where they’re applying and whether they are getting good value from their legal education. More law schools should decrease their entering class size. If this means they need to lay off some faculty, then so be it.

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