I have been following the recent conversation started by David Yellen with much interest. Some of this, I’m sure, is because I work at a law school that will probably be 207 on the list when we obtain our full accreditation. Needless to say, when you are about to join what is an undeniably crowded market, you have to pay attention to whether there is going to be a market.
One thing I noted about the discussion is everyone is talking about the number of students who are being admitted to law school. My first thought is that the number who are graduating are of more direct interest. After all, if law schools are admitting 40,000 students this year, but only 25,000 of them graduate, the number of new lawyers being trained would seem to match the market demand for new attorneys.
What flashed through my mind at this point was the old statement supposedly from the orientation of a typical law school, “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of these two people will not be graduating with you.” If this truism is accurate, only about 27,000 of the 40,000 would graduate and things are not as out-of-balance as we thought.
I looked at the table of data that the ABA maintains (with thanks to Brian Tamanaha for giving us the link). I have downloaded the data and converted them into a spreadsheet. I then did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the attrition rate. To do this, I had to make an assumption about how long it would take a student to complete the program (any student we admit this year will not graduate for two to six years, after all). Consequently, for my rough calculation, I assumed that all students are full-time students who take exactly three years to finish law school.
When I did this, an interesting transformation can be seen (Download ABA attrition data). For law school graduating classes through 1974, the approximate attrition was more than 20% with the high for the period being 1966 at 45%. (If I were going to take these calculations off of the envelope, I would want to try to find out whether the Vietnam War was having an effect here of artificially raising the rate of law school drop-outs or push-outs). For many of these years, the “look left, look right” adage is fairly accurate.
Starting in 1975, however, the attrition rate drops and never goes above 20% again. More recently, it is even lower. As an approximation, since 1994, law school attrition is around 10%, far below the 33% predicted by the adage.
What this suggests is that our collective focus on entering class may be inappropriate. Are the students of today much better than the students of the 1960s and 70s? If not, why are they finishing law school? Maybe our focus should be on whether our academic standards have become too lax. Raising academic standards could cure two problems, after all, over enrollment and another burning issue with the ABA — bar passage rates.