Friday, April 28, 2017
In October and November 2013, I had a series of three blog posts about changing demographics among law students. The first looked at changes in applicants from the top 240 feeder schools. The second documented a greater decrease in applicants with high LSATs than applicants with low LSATs and a resulting increase in the percentage of matriculants with LSATs of <150. The third, set forth below, was published on November 24, 2013, and tried to explore possible reasons for the change in the proportional distribution of law students from different LSAT categories.
The questions explored here still linger. In the current admissions cycle -- for the fall 2017 class -- the most recent Current Volume Summary shows that while applicants overall are roughly flat compared to 2016, the percentage of applicants with LSATs of 165 or higher is down nearly 10% compared to 2016. The AALS has launched a survey project -- Before the JD -- to try to gather information to help answer some of these questions. I am privileged to serve on the Advisory Board working on the Before the JD survey project.
Why the Difference in Response to Market Signals?
In Part One, I analyzed how analysis of changes in applicants from LSAC’s Top 240 Feeder Schools demonstrates that graduates of more elite colleges and universities have abandoned legal education at a rate greater than graduates of less elite colleges and universities.
In Part Two, I analyzed how the pool of applicants to law school has shifted with a greater decrease among applicants with high LSATs than among applicants with low LSATs resulting in a corresponding increase in the number and percentage of matriculants with LSATs of <150.
What might explain why applicants to law school are down more significantly among graduates of more elite colleges and universities than among graduates of less elite colleges and universities? What might explain why applicants to law school are down more significantly among those with LSATs of 165+ than among those with LSATs of <150? Is there some relationship between these data points?
There likely is some relationship between these data points. Many of the more elite schools in the LSAC’s list of the Top 240 Feeder Schools have historically been schools whose graduates on average have higher LSAT scores compared with graduates from less elite schools. The LSAC’s 1995 publication, Legal Education at the Close of the Twentieth Century: Descriptions and Analyses of Students, Financing, and Professional Expectations and Attitudes, authored by Linda F. Wightman, discusses the characteristics of the population of students who entered law school in the fall of 1991. Roughly 31% of the students scoring in the top quarter in terms of LSAT came from very highly selective undergraduate schools, roughly 31% from highly selective undergraduate schools, and only 17% from the least selective undergraduate schools. Id. at page 38, Table 20. Thus, it is very likely that these two data points are related – that the greater decline among applicants from more elite colleges and universities is correlated directly with the greater decline among applicants with LSAT scores of 165+.
I want to offer three possible explanations for this differential response to market signals among different populations of prospective law students. The first two focus on the possibility that market signals are communicated differently to different populations. The third focuses on how different populations of prospective law students simply might respond to the same market signals in markedly different ways.
Different Pre-Law Advising Resources May Mean Market Signals Penetrate Some Populations of Prospective Law Students More Deeply Than Other Populations of Prospective Law Students. Focusing first on the nature of the feeder schools, one possibility is that access to pre-law advising resources differs across these different categories of feeder schools resulting in different messages being communicated to applicants from less elite colleges and universities than to applicants from more elite colleges and universities regarding the cost of legal education and the diminished employment prospects for law school graduates in recent years. Perhaps there are more robust pre-law advising programs among the elite colleges and universities than among the less elite colleges and universities, with pre-law advisors who really have their finger on the pulse of what is happening in legal education and the legal employment market. Perhaps these more robust pre-law advising programs are engaging in programming and advising that communicates more effectively to prospective law students the significant costs of legal education and the ways in which the challenging employment reality for law graduates in recent years makes the significant cost problematic. As a result, perhaps larger percentages of prospective law students at more elite colleges and universities are getting more information about the increasing costs and diminished employment prospects for law graduates and are deciding to wait to apply to law school or are deciding to pursue a different career completely.
Alternatively, pre-law advisors may have different responses to market signals in thinking about their role in advising students. Perhaps pre-law advisors at more elite colleges and universities are more directive about discouraging students from considering law school while pre-law advisors at less elite colleges and universities are more inclined simply to support student interest in pursuing law school.
There clearly are disparate allocations of resources to pre-law advising across various colleges and universities, different levels of engagement among pre-law advisors and different perspectives on how directive one should be in advising students considering law school. That said, I am not sure these differences necessarily can be delineated in relation to the extent to which a college or university is considered an elite college or university or a less elite college or university. Moreover, with so much information now available on the internet, it is not clear that pre-law advisors are the primary source of information for prospective law students.
These hypotheses would benefit from being explored empirically. What are the relative pre-law advising resources at the schools down more than 30% in applicants between 2010 and 2012 relative to the pre-law advising resources at the schools down less than 10%? Are pre-law advisors at the colleges and universities down more than 30% in applicants between 2010 and 2012 more inclined to affirmatively discourage students from considering law school than pre-law advisors at colleges and universities down less than 10%? Were prospective students at these two categories of schools really receiving different messages about the employment situation for law graduates and the cost of law school?
Different Social Network Signals and Influences --- Another possibility might involve social network signals and influences. Significant empirical data indicates that on average different socio-economic populations attend different types of colleges and universities. Among those entering law school in fall 1991 from very highly selective undergraduate schools, nearly three times as many were from families from upper socio-economic status as from lower-middle socio-economic status. Legal Education at the Close of the Twentieth Century: Descriptions and Analyses of Students, Financing, and Professional Expectations and Attitudes, at page 38, Table 20. By contrast, among those entering law school in fall 1991 from the least selective undergraduate schools, nearly twice as many were from lower-middle socio-economic status as from upper socio-economic status. Id. Similarly, there is fairly significant empirical data indicating that different socio-economic populations generally attend different tiers of law schools with more of the socio-economically elite at higher-ranked law schools and fewer of the socio-economically elite at lower-ranked low schools. Id. at pages 30-31, Table 15 and Figure 7; Richard H. Sander and Jane R. Bambauer, The Secret of My Success: How Status, Eliteness and School Performance Shape Legal Careers, 9 J. Empirical Legal Stud. 893, Table 2 (2012)(analysis of the After the JD dataset looking at a representative sample of law school graduates who took the bar in 2000).
Given this background, it would seem plausible that graduates of more elite colleges and universities on average represent more of an upper-income socio-economic population who may know more lawyers than graduates of less elite colleges and universities who may on average represent more of a middle class socio-economic population. The parents of graduates of more elite colleges and universities may be more likely to be lawyers and/or have friends who are lawyers. Thus, it is possible that graduates of more elite colleges and universities may be more likely to have received negative signals about the rising cost of legal education and the diminished employment prospects for law school graduates in recent years from family and friends than did their peers from less elite colleges and universities. This hypothesis also would benefit from being explored empirically.
Different Decision Matrices Based on Socio-Economic Status and Opportunity – Another possibility is that regardless of whether students across different types of feeder schools really are getting different messages about the costs of legal education and the challenging employment prospects for law school graduates, they simply may be making different decisions in response to that information. This hypothesis builds on the possibility that different populations of prospective law students may have different motivations for considering law school or may evaluate the value of a legal education using different parameters given different sets of options that might be available to them. It is possible that the market signals regarding employment of law graduates are more nuanced than we might generally appreciate.
For example, it may be that graduates of elite colleges and universities, who also tend to be among the socio-economic elite, have a variety of employment options coming out of college that are more attractive than law school at the moment given the diminished job prospects for law graduates in recent years. If these students generally value a law degree primarily because of the status associated with acquiring a “prestigious” job in a big firm upon graduating from law school, than the significant decline in big firm jobs might frame their analysis of the value-proposition of law school. Changes in the legal employment marketplace, particularly significant declines in the number of positions with “prestigious” big firms, may have made the legal profession less attractive to the socio-economic elite, who may be able to pursue job opportunities in finance, investment banking, consulting, or technology, or meaningful public interest opportunities such as Teach for America, that are viewed favorably within their social network.
By contrast, for graduates of less elite colleges and universities, who are generally not from the socio-economic elite, fewer opportunities may be available in finance, investment banking, consulting, and technology. In addition, they may lack the financial flexibility to make Teach for America or other public interest opportunities viable. Moreover, this set of prospective law students may be more motivated simply about becoming a lawyer and acquiring the status that comes with being a lawyer (even if they are not going to become a big firm lawyer, but are simply going to be a family law attorney, or a public defender or a worker’s comp attorney). This population may be less focused on big firm options and less concerned about the lack of jobs in that niche within the market and may see any position within the legal profession as a path toward financial security and social status, despite the increasing costs of legal education and the diminished employment prospects of law graduates.
These hypotheses also may merit more empirical assessment. What are the graduates of more elite colleges and universities choosing to do in greater numbers as significantly smaller numbers apply to law school? Are there different motivations for pursuing law school among different socio-economic populations?
Regardless of the explanation for the current changes in application patterns, it would appear that the population of law students not only is shrinking, but may be going through a modest demographic transformation, with a somewhat smaller percentage of law students representing the socio-economic elite and a somewhat larger percentage of law students from lower on the socio-economic scale. First-year students in 2013 may be slightly less “blue blood” and slightly more “blue collar” than they were in 1991. Whether this is a short-term trend or a longer term reality remains to be seen. What it might mean for legal education and the legal profession over time also remains to be seen.