While more and more college grads have been avoiding the law school path, there is one group that appears to be coming back: high LSAT scorers.
Going by the LSAT and GPA numbers, the current crop of students at the top law schools is substantially weaker than the pool we had in the recession years 2008-2011, when people were applying to law schools in droves. This isn’t surprising: from a high in 2009-2010, when some 171,514 people took the LSAT, the number has tumbled to just 105,532 who took the LSAT last year. With that much smaller a group, there are way bound to be way fewer high scorers in the mix.
You can see evidence of this in schools’ LSAT medians, which have dropped considerably year-over-year, as well as in their acceptance rates, which have gone up. Harvard for example boasted an acceptance rate under 12% in 2009– that has now ballooned up over 17%. They’ve have to accept more students to put together a group with weaker numbers.
That’s only part of the story. More alarming for the prestige of the profession is that the best test takers have been more likely to avoid law school than the bulk of the herd. Here is a look at LSAT stats from 2012:
(Source: The Atlantic)
Here, the number of LSAT takers scoring in the the low 140s, people unlikely to get into a ranked law school, only fell a bit. At the top end in the 170-174 range, however, where the bulk of people bound for elite T14 schools are found, there was a sharp 20.7 percent drop. Jordan Weissman, writing for the Atlantic, said at the time, “So the smart kids got the memo. Law school is largely a losing game, and they’re not going to play, even though they can probably count on a better hand than most.”
Now it appears the smart kids are getting a new memo. Weissman again spotted the trend, noting that high LSAT scorers are coming back. Here are the 2014 stats:
Note the 7.5% and 7.6% percent increases in the 170+ groups. The 165-169 group– also in good shape to join high tier 1 schools – fell off less sharply than the bulky middle. While it’s still a smaller pool of LSAT takers overall (and still smaller at the high ranges than 2012), at least now a greater percentage of the remaining are students in a position to get into the top programs.
This is good news for our best law schools and for the health of the profession overall. Would-be law students are recognizing that if you can secure a spot in the best schools, it’s a pretty damn good time to go to law school. As smaller and smaller graduating classes come down the law school pipeline over the next few years, there will be less competition for the top jobs, and these students will be in by far the best position to grab them.
I’m a bit curious what these numbers tell us about students signing up to take the LSAT. It could be that word is getting to college graduates that the top of the law school food chain is now a safe place to be. Elie Mystal at Above The Law proposes an alternate theory, saying:
“I think the new numbers show that the value of a good LSAT score is being appreciated by those who are hell bent in going to law school anyway. Getting a high score means getting into a better school or going to law school for free. This slight shift in the applicant pool suggests to me that prospective law students are thinking more critically about their decisions. And that’s certainly a good thing.”
I hope Mystal is right, as for over a year now I’ve been yelling to 25k+ readers a month not to go to law school unless you can get yourself in position to get big money scholarships or go to an elite-among-the-elite school. That remains good advice. While competition for jobs will slacken as fewer people graduate law school over the next several years, we have now and will continue to have a major shortage of legal jobs for graduates of lower ranked law schools. A full-priced degree is still a bad bet for a 50% chance of getting a legal job.
Meanwhile, at the high end, it’s still a buyer’s market for those with good scores. The best schools are giving out a raft of scholarship money to compete with each other for high-scorers. Healthier job prospects await successful applicants at the end of the road.
What should you take away from this if you are considering law school? Claw for a high LSAT score with everything you have. The high scoring club is a better and better club to be a part of, while prospects for the middle-range club remain about the same.