Is the Bar Too Low In Law School?

October 05, 2015

These are turbulent times in legal education, with U.S. law schools facing multiple challenges to the way they do business.

First, the numbers just aren’t adding up the way they used to. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of law school applicants dropped by more than 40%. In large part, that decline has to do with a sluggish economy: If you don’t think you’ll get a good job after law school—one that will let you pay down the big loans necessary to pay for law school—then you might be less inclined to apply in the first place.

Some schools have responded by enrolling fewer students, but that choice puts a lot of pressure on a school’s bottom line. Cutting just a few students from each year’s class can quickly add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

The alternative, for all but the very top-ranked schools, is to keep admitting bigger classes at the cost of accepting, on average, less qualified students. As the number of total applicants shrinks, it becomes harder for a given law school to enroll enough students with high undergraduate grades and admission test scores. So, if the school wants to keep its class size up, it’s forced to admit students with lower numbers.

But that choice can lead the school into a nasty feedback loop. Rankings of law schools depend, in part, on students’ grades and test scores; if those numbers decline, so can the school’s ranking. And a lower ranking makes it harder to attract applicants with higher grades and scores. Even further, students with weaker qualifications entering law school will, on average, have a harder time passing the bar exam and getting good jobs after law school. In turn, if fewer grads pass the bar and find good jobs, the school’s ranking can suffer, and around we go again.

A sustained economic recovery would provide some relief for law schools. As legal jobs become more plentiful, more highly qualified students will choose law school, and some of the ill effects of the past decade could be offset. But there’s also pressure on law schools from practicing lawyers—pressure to focus more on teaching students practical skills and less on seemingly more intellectual pursuits. In addition, there’s pressure to make legal education less expensive, or at least to slow down the growth in its cost.

Those are old debates, but one by-product this time around has been the idea of reducing a standard legal education from three years to two, with the third year spent gaining practical experience in an internship or the like. That idea gained momentum in 2013, when President Obama endorsed it. Some law schools are exploring the idea more enthusiastically than others, but it poses a challenge to the current economic model, which depends on three years of tuition from each student.

Lawyers aren’t going to become obsolete anytime soon, which means law schools won’t either. But that doesn’t mean every existing law school will stay in business, and it doesn’t mean law schools can simply stick with old ways of doing things. I’m Sean Anderson.