The Pendulum is Swinging: Major Drop in Law School Applications

The pendulum is really swinging now in terms of declining law school applications, according to a January 28 American Lawyer article. A decline was certainly expected with JD graduates far outpacing the number of jobs available, but as Karen Sloan notes, no one expected just how quickly the numbers would fall.

In 2012, law school applications dropped by 14% overall. As of mid-January 2013, fewer than 28,000 had applied for seats at accredited programs in the US. According to experts, if this trend continues through the end of Spring Admissions, this would equate to a 38% decline since law school applications peaked in 2010. Says Sloan: “At the present rate, between 53,000 and 54,000 applicants will vie for places in ABA-accredited schools this year, down from 68,000 in 2012.” This would be by far the fewest applications received since tracking began in 1983, as applications have never slipped below the 60,000 mark. This is particularly surprising when you consider that there are 26 more accredited law schools today than there were 30 years ago.

Sloan went on to interview Sarah Zearfoss, a dean of law school admissions at University of Michigan, who commented: “It’s become clear that there is no chance of redemption for this cycle. The December LSAT sitting is already over and there is no reason to think that there will be a larger-than-normal February sitting.” Interestingly, law schools in the Northeast have experienced less of a decline (14%), than schools in the West, Northwest, and Midwest/Great Lakes regions (22%).

For law schools, this means either smaller incoming classes, and/or the lowering of long-held admissions standards. Yet both of these outcomes create problems for law school deans and administrators. On the one hand, lowered qualification standards may jeopardize their sacred school ratings and rankings. On the other hand, smaller classes would mean lower revenues due to lost tuition payments. This, Sloan notes, will force many to adjust. In fact, numbers of law schools across the board have already cut or laid off various faculty and staff members due to the application/enrollee drop. The months to come will tell more of the story, but clearly the pendulum is starting to swing—and faster than we thought.