Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Drift Toward Pure Numbers Admissions

[by Bill Henderson, cross-posted to ELS Blog]

Law schools are part of a production function for entry level lawyers.  Therefore, if law schools alter their admissions practices, the character and complexion of the law school applicant pool can shift in significant ways.  On the input side, the data are crystal clear: over the last 15 years, the rankings arms race has pushed U.S. law schools toward a pure numbers approach to admissions.   The more interesting question, however, is whether prestige-conscious law firms are now, inadvertently, experiencing any fallout.   First the data.

Law schools operate in an environment of supply and demand and are famously counter-cyclical.  When Silicon Valley was booming in the late 90s, law school applicants plummeted.  When the economy faltered in the early 90s or after 9/11, applicants spiked.  Therefore, to examine how admissions practices have changed over time, it is important to pay attention to the underlying applicant pool.  Below are trend lines for median LSAT scores by USNWR rank for 1994 and 2007, which reflect classes that entered in the fall of 1993 and 2006 respectively.  During those two admissions cycles, the number of applicants was virtually identical:  89,600 (class entering fall 1993) and 88,700 (class entering fall 2006).

Lsat_9407_2

Obviously the blue line (2007) is higher than the orange line (1994).  In fact, despite slightly fewer law school applicants, the average median LSAT increased by 2.18 points (std. dev. of 1.99). For the record, only three schools fell out of Tier 1 between 1994 and 2007.  And it cannot be explained by the ABA policy shift that instructs law schools to no longer average LSAT scores when reporting 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile figures, thus slightly pumping up the volume of high LSAT scores.  That change was not enacted until the summer of 2006

Here is the same analysis for UGPA (1994 data came from the Princeton Review, 2007 from the ABA):

Slide2

Although we might chock some of the higher UPGAs (avg. of +.17, std. dev. of +.12) on grade inflation between 1994 and 2007, it is likely that schools were also trying to maximize this number. More after the jump ... .

When admissions officers are under constant pressure to beat last year's numbers, something has to give.  I suspect it is students who took challenging majors but have LSAT scores slightly under the target.    Or applicants with impressive work experience, evidence of leadership, or a history of overcoming major obstacles.  Although LSAT and UGPA scores are strongly correlated within the applicant pool, they tend to be very weakly correlated (or sometimes negatively correlated) at individual law schools.  Why?  Because applicants who are above both medians tend to have admissions offers at higher ranked schools. After a school locks down its target LSAT and UGPA medians, the modest overlap between the two groups means there are precious few spots left.  And often those spots are used to improve a school's diversity profile.

Over the years I have talked with many admissions officers.  They corroborate the sea change.  Further, many of the old hands argue that the current fixation on maximizing numbers is misguided--that, based on their experience, great candidates are being passed over for nondescript or unadventurous students with high numbers.   In other words, a large portion of candidates with compelling resumes and personal statements are being systematically pushed down to lower ranked law schools.

At a law firm level, there is a certain irony at work.  Many partners could not get admitted to their alma mater; yet, between 2005 and 2007, as NLJ 250 hiring increased rapidly, 53% of the new jobs went to students at USN Top 20 schools.  Rigid adherence to the elite law school model drove the starting salary cost structure from $125,000 to $145,000 to $160,000--a legacy that is hard to swallow in a down market.  But were these intangibles--now less prevalent at most law elite law schools--part of the firms' secret sauce?   To my mind, this is an interesting question.  Further, a recent Moneyball study by Kerma Partners suggests that the answer may be yes.

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