For years, changes in the number of LSAT takers have reliably foreshadowed changes in the number of law-school applicants and applications. The number of applicants to law school has fallen nearly 40% since 2010, and since 2010 the number of LSATs administered has fallen in rough proportion.
So many of us were surprised when the June 2017 administration of the LSAT, traditionally the kickoff to the application season, attracted about 20% more test-takers than last year; registrations for the September administration are similarly up 12% over last year. No obvious explanation presented itself: Conventional wisdom (which still appears to be basically right) dictated that applications had fallen because potential applicants had eventually appreciated in greater and greater numbers that the market for entry-level law jobs had shrunk consistently and substantially since its high-water mark in 2007. Rationally, they stayed away in droves. The number of law jobs obtained by the class of 2016 within 10 months after graduation was flat (actually, slightly lower) again this year. (The proportion of the class that got law jobs was up slightly, simply because the number of graduates is falling in direct proportion to the falling number of students who started law school three or four years before. With fewer graduates fishing for the same number of jobs, a slightly greater proportion of them managed to hook one. Of course, these improved chances will continue only so long as law-school census stays low.)
A recent survey of LSAT takers (see also here) suggests at least a partial explanation: Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said that Donald Trump’s presidency was the single most important reason they were considering law school. Over half (52%) said that Trump’s presidency and recent events such as the Charlottesville protests had moderately or strongly influenced their decision to apply to law school as well as the type of law they intended to practice.
Wow. Some thoughts about this development after the jump:
For those inclined to leap to conclusions about the sensibilities of this younger cohort of the electorate, bear in mind that the survey doesn’t track whether these prospective law-school applicants aspire to the bar because they disapprove of what the government is doing in this administration and its effects on the populace, or because they approve. Quite probably there are some of each. (Readers are cautioned to draw no conclusions about my own political views from this comment. Those views simply aren’t relevant here.)
But what is very striking about this development is that, for at least the last generation, the desire to use a law degree in the service of the public interest, however perceived—that is, to help others in need or make the world a better place in ways other than as a handmaiden of commerce—has been a less common motivation to attend law school than, say, in the late 1960s or 1970s. Of course, there were always some students with these motivations, but fewer than in generations past. As the organization that surveyed LSAT-takers commented, “The overarching concerns for the past several years have dealt with the law school transparency movement, the decreasing number of law jobs, and increasing debt load of law school, etc. . . . It wasn’t until this year that we started hearing from our students that they were applying as a reaction to what was happening on the national political scene.”
For those who think that this portends a sea-change in the applicant pool, or how those prospective applicants should be “marketed to” (for those who can’t help but think about the degrees they purvey as a commodity to be advertised and artificially differentiated like toilet paper), or the eventual demographics of the practicing bar, realistically the situation bespeaks caution:
- Let’s see how many people actually apply, and who they are. As those paying any attention are well aware, not only has the number of applicants fallen substantially, but the number of applicants that make admissions officers weak in the knees (with stronger conventional qualifications such as LSAT score and undergraduate GPA, however incomplete or class-biased you may consider them as indicators of future prospects) has fallen disproportionately more.
- Those who are excited at the prospect of differentiating their programs as uniquely effective or successful at preparing students for, or placing students in, “public interest” work (again, however broadly construed) should realize that you’re just not unique—pretty much every law school in America touts its service to, and pipeline into, the public interest. Visit any five law-school websites you like and scan the homepage.
- Study after study, as well as the widely reported anecdotal experiences of many law teachers, tell us that a lot more students enter than leave law school as idealists. And this despite the concerted efforts of many idealistic law teachers holding many different kinds of ideals who have for decades earnestly sought to nurture this seed in their students’ souls.
- And for those who are inclined to see this news as an augury of the end of the “access to justice” problem, my response is regretful but simple: Get real. The reason we have an access to justice problem in America is not because we have too few lawyers, or too few lawyers willing to help those in need. The surplus of un- and under-employed lawyers over the last ten years shows how little there always was to these rationalizations. There aren’t enough lawyers for the needy because private-sector lawyers can’t make a living serving them. That’s why we need the Legal Services Corporation—which the Trump administration has proposed to defund entirely—and other public and charitable sources of funding for legal aid. As I pointed out some years ago in another post, the poor are poor because they have no money. I offer my heartfelt praise and encouragement to everyone who wishes to serve the needy, protect the oppressed, or otherwise devote their lives to improving our country or our world, but in the foreseeable future it isn’t likely to get any easier to find anyone to pay you anything to do it. If current events provoke a surge of law-school matriculants, any honest and rational observer should fear for their prospects once they graduate, irrespective of their admirable intentions.
All that said, the times they are a-changin’. What happens next will be interesting. Let’s hope it’s also good.