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February 02, 2013


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This is a delicate topic so I will post anonymously. Another factor reducing the attrition rate is the increased diversity of the students. About half of certain URM groups are in the bottom 10% of their class. Flunking out students based upon grades would lead to intolerable results.

James Milles

I would arguably that even 10% attrition is too high. High attrition rates are indicative of law schools whose business model is based on admitting large numbers of students who are bound to fail, but who might still be able to hang on for a year or two at full tuition. The fact that attrition remains as high as it is suggests that law schools are still more reliant on quantity than quality than is healthy for anyone.

Ralph D. Clifford

In response to pweed, I agree that it is a problem. Ultimately, though, weaker students (of whatever group or non-group) should be provided with aggressive academic support to allow them to enhance their performance to an acceptable level. At the end of the day, however, they have to pass the bar exam and have the knowledge and skills to be lawyers.

I disagree with James fairly strongly. It is possible that a high attrition rate is the sign of a school that is churning students for the money, but more often it is based on the fact that the data we have that predicts a student's future performance in law school are weak. Even when you combine the two primary predictors of performance, undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores, correlations between predictors and performance tend to be around 0.65. This is a strong correlation, but it indicates that a significant number of promising students will be admitted who will not do well. This matches what all of us who teach first-year students know. For a significant percentage of them, although they may be bright and hard working, they will still not "get it."

Orin Kerr

I'm no expert in this, but I have thought that the high attrition model came with relatively open admissions standards. Lots of people were admitted in their 1L year and then the major question was who would be invited back after their 1L year. In contrast, the more recent approach is to use the LSAT (first given in 1948 and expanded through the 1960s) to try to approximate 1L grades, which lets schools make initial admissions harder but then let everyone stick around once they are in.

Bill Turnier

The high attrition rates in the Vietnam War era were attributable to two factors. First, going into that era, grading for undergraduate programs and law schools were a lot tougher. In many schools grade inflation came on in a big way as professors sought to keep students, even bad ones, away from draft boards. Second, most draft boards would yank people right out of law school to sent them off to the jungles of Vietnam. Those that did operated on the theory that they had given you a deferment for a bachelor's degree (BA) and pursuit of an LLB was merely your clever way of avoiding the draft by seeking another deferment. They would then draft you right out of law school. This caused many schools to join Washburn and Chicago (the only schools then granting JDs) and grant a JD. My draft board was one such draft board but before I completed my first semester, I had gone overage (I have an unusual career history before entering law school). I provided the above so readers could realize that it is hard to compare data across the decades and draw much from the comparison unless one understands the "history" of each of the decades.

Beau Baez

Attrition began going down across all of higher education beginning in the 1960’s—this trend is not limited to legal education. Under the old paradigm (pre-1960’s), the approach was to academically dismiss any student that did not “get it” (i.e., was not academically prepared for college). As higher education became more democratized, universities decided that they actually needed to teach those that did not have the same skills that those from the more privileged classes tended to have.

A smaller attrition rate is not related, primarily, to cognition but instead academic preparedness. In my situation, my family moved from what had become a working class neighborhood to an upper middle class neighborhood during my junior high school years. The public junior high school I attended in seventh and eighth grades, which was highly regarded when my mother attended it in the 1950’s, was no longer providing a quality education—old books, old pedagogy, and worn out teachers. What a difference when I began attending my new public junior high school, which was actually preparing students to go to college. There are many other potential lawyers out there that need for us to provide them with the skills they need to succeed because many of them were not given the same opportunities that most of us in the academy were provided. Some of our students may not be able to write well, but we can teach them that skill—it takes effort. To demand that an academic success counselor teach them how to write is an abdication of our teaching duty, which is much more than making sure they know Torts, Contracts, Property, or Civil Procedure.

Derek Tokaz

Would anyone in their right mind spend $45,000 for tuition when there's a 20-30% chance of being kicked out with triple the student debt you started with (average undergrad is ~$25k) and no additional degree?

Law schools cost (in inflation-adjusted dollars) three times as much as they did thirty years ago. It should be no surprise that this huge financial burden comes with at least the guaranteed opportunity to graduate.


Remember that there are law schools, such as Cooley, where a large percentage of the class is dismissed after the first year. I have heard between 20-33% of the class.

The reason for doing this may be the bar passage rates- if a certain percentage of students cannot pass the bar, the school loses accreditation. Failing out a certain number of poorly performing students would allow the school to collect a year's tuition while maintaining their passing rates, and it spares the student a large investment of debt over the second and third year. With the placement rates and debt loads out of these schools, I'd say the students who fail out after 1L are actually the lucky ones.


My own view is that the cost of law school and the high level of student loans drives a sunk cost type fallacy that deters students from dropping out. If first year tuition was much lower, a lot more would drop out.


MacK - but you could argue the other way as well. A lower cost of the 2nd and 3rd year could encourage those considering dropping out to stay in, since it isn't that much more money.

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