The Smartest People Are Opting Out of Law School

Fewer people with high test scores are going to law school, and low performers are filling their slots

Photographer: Getty Images

American law schools have a brain drain problem. Fewer people with high Law School Admission Test scores are applying to and enrolling in law school, and less-qualified students are filling their slots, new research shows.

As schools grapple with a persistent slump in young Americans’ interest in legal education, the programs seem to be compensating for their sudden unpopularity by taking in people who wouldn’t have made the cut five years ago. As of March 2015, about half as many students with scores of 165 and above on the LSAT have applied to law school as did in 2010, according to a new analysis of the latest numbers from the Law School Admission Council, which administers the test. LSAT scores range from 120 to 180. Applications from students with lower scores are falling, too, but not nearly as sharply, as the second chart below shows. 

The disenchantment with law school on the part of the people most likely to get in shows up in the classroom head count, too: Around 5,400 people with the highest scores will enroll in law school this year, down from 9,400 in 2010, according to Jerome Organ, the University of St. Thomas School of Law professor who parsed the numbers. 

Even as applications fall across the board, a growing number of people with low scores are expected to show up to class. Some 8,700 low-scoring students will likely start law school in 2015, up from 7,000 in 2010, according to Organ, who looked at LSAC data on the number of applicants as of March 6, 2015, and projected how much the pool would grow and how many would matriculate, based on averages from the previous three years. 

“The top is eroding and the bottom is growing,” says Organ, adding that schools risk churning out graduates with less of a shot at becoming lawyers. "Four years from now, when those people graduate and take the bar, you'll have a much smaller percentage who are likely to pass the bar and a much larger percentage that are likely to fail." Research has shown that LSAT scores generally correlate with success during the first year of law school and with scores on the bar exam.

Indeed, several states have begun reporting results for the February 2015 bar exam, and they are underwhelming: Scores on the multistate portion of the test dipped to their lowest point in five years, and pass rates are down across the country. The slump looks positively inspiring in comparison with the dark moment last fall, when states reported the single largest score drop for the July bar exam in four decades. After that bombshell, the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the organization that creates the exam, enraged some law schools after blaming the failing grades on a "less able" group of test takers. A group of 79 law deans jabbed back with a letter to the organization questioning "the integrity and fairness" of the test and openly questioning the need for a bar exam in the first place.

Still, as the bad marks pile up, some law professors are pointing the mirror in law school's direction and asking deans to take a look. 

"It’s a reflection of the decline in the quality in graduates that law schools are producing," says Derek Muller, a law professor at Pepperdine University, referring to the declining bar pass rates. "There's no question that schools have a moral imperative to consider the likelihood of success and the burden placed upon the students they admit, whether that’s debt loads or probability of passing the Bar." 

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