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Law School Applications Set to Hit 15-Year Low

Law school is falling out of favor with Americans, new data show. The decline has spurred programs to use strange survival tactics

Law schools keep getting less attractive to young professionals, with schools receiving 6.7 percent fewer applications this year than they did in 2014, according to numbers released by the Law School Admission Council on Wednesday, March 19. The number of individuals applying has also fallen, by 4.7 percent. If the pace continues as it did last year, the number of people who applied to law school for the Fall 2015 semester will hit its lowest level in 15 years. (At this point last year, LSAC had accounted for 79 percent of applicants.)

The LSAC cautions that it's too early to start worrying, especially since the numbers have shown signs of improving. "Because the rate of decline [in applications] is slowing, it's very difficult to say how its going to compare to last year," says Wendy Margolis, an LSAC spokeswoman. In 2014, there were 3,700 fewer applicants than in 2013, which was good news: Schools had seen applicants drop at least 8,000 in the three previous years. 

Law schools might also look better in light of a mathematical quirk: The employment data that the American Bar Association will release in April may well show better job outcomes, for reasons that have little to do with the success of legal education, says Jerome Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who studies enrollment data. 

Fewer people started law school in 2011 than in the five years prior, meaning fewer people graduated in 2014. Even with the same number of jobs available, the overall percentage of employed graduates could look better simply because fewer people would have vied for them. "Some students who have been sitting on the sidelines thinking, 'I am not sure this is a good investment,'" may see the job numbers and change their minds, Organ reasons.

More broadly, waning interest in law school has become an increasingly urgent threat to the business model underlying legal education in the U.S. As legal jobs have dried up, fewer people are applying to and enrolling in law schools, spurring panic across the industry. To cope with the new reality, schools have arrived at innovative tactics to help fill their classrooms.

On Wednesday, Pace Law School in New York announced it would begin matching the tuition rate that out-of-state students received at their state schools, calling the program the first of its kind in the U.S. Dean David Yassky specifically cited declining enrollment across the country in an e-mailed statement explaining the new policy. Last month, the State University of New York-Buffalo Law School and the University of Iowa College of Law announced that they would not require the Law School Admission Test for applications from top-performing students from their undergraduate institutions. Officials at the schools acknowledged that dropping the LSAT for this cohort could make it easier to funnel quality candidates into their programs.

A more straightforward tactic, favored by the vast majority of law schools, is simply to lower admissions standards across the board. Nine in 10 law schools have allowed LSAT scores of students in the bottom quartile to drop–meaning those whose scores are already the lowest of the class are getting even worse–according to a December report by the nonprofit that creates part of the Bar Exam. Meanwhile, the employment rate for law grads fell for the sixth consecutive year in 2014, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

Now, of course, would be the perfect time to apply to law school. It’s just not a great time to graduate.

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