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The Best Law Schools Are Attracting Fewer Students

The legal education crisis is spreading.

In 2010, Sarah Zearfoss, director of admissions at the University of Michigan's law school, got a tip from an employee that she simply could not ignore. It was just two years after the housing crisis, and Zearfoss and her staff were concerned about the increasingly bleak job market for new lawyers. The advice, she thought, might help: Shrink the school.

“The single best thing we could do to help our students is to make the class size smaller,” Zearfoss said. 

She began to set the plan in motion. Since 2011, Michigan Law, considered one of the country's top law schools, has cut its first-year class by 26 percent. The number of applicants to the school fell 20 percent over that period, according to data from the American Bar Association. 

Michigan Law is not the only elite law school to experience such a stark contraction. As applications plunge, especially from the very best students, a growing number of highly regarded law schools are slashing class sizes. The crisis in legal education, once confined to the lower tier (schools ranked below 50 by U.S. News and World Report), has hit the upper echelon.

“Every school has had to make choices, even at the top,” Zearfoss said. “This has been upheaval for everyone.”

Since 2011, the number of applicants to law schools ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News has dropped by a median 18 percent, data from the American Bar Association show. Yale Law School saw its applicant count dip by 13 percent. Harvard Law School experienced an 18 percent drop.

As applications have dwindled, some of the most exclusive schools have opened their doors a little wider: Top-tier schools admitted a median 7 percent more people in 2015 than they did in 2011. Part of the reason schools send out more offers is that they expect that prospective students, who are in high demand, will be more likely to turn them down than they once were. 

Those measures only go so far. The majority of elite campuses, unwilling to seriously dilute their student bodies, still had to downsize. Class sizes declined by a median of 5 percent at the top 20 schools over the last five years, ABA data shows. 

The most urgent challenge facing the top schools is that applications from students with the highest test scores have declined. In 2010, 12,177 people with the highest scores on the LSAT (165 and above, the highest possible score being 180) applied to law school. By 2015, only 6,667 people with those scores applied, according to figures provided by Jerome Organ, a law professor who analyzes law school admissions data. 

“It creates a competitive pressure on the part of the top law schools in competing for a smaller pool of the very top applicants; there is no question about it,” said Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University School of Law, which has cut its first-year class size by 19 percent since 2011. Rodriguez says he pushed for the school to slim its classes partly because, with fewer and fewer jobs available for law grads, he thought it was “irresponsible” to keep taking in so many new students. 

The contraction in applications has forced Northwestern and others to spend more on financial aid to draw in the best students, Rodriguez said.

“Top schools have made more substantial investments in financial aid in recent years. We are spending more money on competing for students—and still seeing enrollment decline.”

Some schools have opted to weather lost tuition revenue instead of lowering admission standards and possibly, slipping in national rankings.

“We made a conscious decision in order to maintain the caliber of the student body, the quality of the education, and frankly, to keep our ranking high,” said David Wippman, dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, which has reduced first year classes by 29 percent since 2011, the largest decrease of any school in the top 20. Undergraduate grade point average and Law School Admission Test scores make up 25 percent of U.S. News and World Report’s evaluation of law schools.

“We cannot ignore the fact that rankings influence behavior,” Wippman said. Admitting more students with lower credentials one year and thereby risking a slot in the rankings could make it much harder to draw new students in the future, he added.

This is a balancing act. “There is a little bit of a trade-off as to what extent are you committed to maintaining revenue vs. maintaining a median LSAT and a median GPA,” said Robert Ahdieh, vice dean at Emory University School of Law. Emory has cut its first-year student body by 5 percent since 2011, but has admitted students with lower LSAT scores over that period. The median LSAT score of its new students has not changed.

The risk of taking in students who do worse on the entrance exam is that those people may gain less from their $120,000 and three year investment in law school. Scores on the LSAT have been shown to predict first-year law school performance, and they correlate with a person’s success on the bar exam.

Since 2011, Emory graduates’ bar-passage rate has slipped from 95 percent to 89 percent. Ahdieh said the school has focused on further indicators that a student will succeed, such as undergraduate GPA, but he acknowledged that the slip in high test-scorers may have affected the school’s bar results. “Is it possible that part of it is changing student incoming credentials? It’s possible it’s part of it.”

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