As we prepare for our 2018-2019 cycle recap (coming later this summer) we've been digging into some historic LSAC and ABA provided data. As always, thank you to LSAC and the ABA for making this information publicly available. In this post we'll be looking at data primarily from the 2011-2012 cycle through the 2017-2018 cycle; so overall seven cycles worth of data, which is a decent sample size. In certain instances we'll include data from before 2011; we will note when we do so.
First, we wanted to look at overall application volume. Anyone familiar with law school admissions in the wake of the recession is aware that legal education saw a massive decline in interest. Of late however that decline has been reversing itself. Take a look at the chart below:
Total applicants dropped precipitously through the mid 2010's; at its nadir applicants dropped by 21.3% between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015. Since then volume has begun to recover. Between 2014-2015 and 2017-2018 there has been a 13.3% increase in the total number of applicants to law school. Barring a sudden asteroid strike/zombie apocalypse/similar disaster that number is going to increase by the conclusion of the 2018-2019 application cycle.
Applications (not applicants) saw a similar pattern.
Applications bottomed out in 2014-2015 and have resumed their climb, rising 13.9%. You may have noticed the similar percent increase in applicants and applications since 2014; 13.3% and 13.9% respectively. This is due to a relatively flat number of applications per applicant in the cycles following 2014-2015:
Applications per applicant actually bottomed out in 2015-2016 at 6.23. It's interesting that applications per applicant decreased in this time period, and could be due to steady increases in LSAC application fees. In the 2010 cycle CAS fees were $121; they are $195 now. 2010 LSAC fees per school were $16 per application; they are $45 now.
We unfortunately lack the information necessary to prove this as it would require specifics on LSAC fee waivers granted, and the amount of fee waivers provided by law schools themselves each year.
School specific application costs are unlikely to be the cause. In 2011 37 schools charged $0 to apply; of those with a application fee the median was $60. In 2018 the number of schools with no cost to apply had risen to 91, and of those schools in 2018 with an application fee the median was unchanged at $60.
It is also possible that applicants are becoming savvier and targeting their applications more carefully. The rise of internet prediction sites- myLSN, lawschoolnumbers.com etc, could make applicants more comfortable choosing a smaller number of schools to apply to, as opposed to earlier cycles when less information yielded less predictability for applicants. FWIW, the average Spivey Consulting client applies to 10 law school, per our internal data.
Law schools were obviously impacted by these changing applicant and application volumes. Matriculation suffered significantly and has yet to fully recover.
Between Fall 2012 and Fall 2015 7,423 seats at ABA approved schools had disappeared- a 16.7% decrease. For scale, that's the equivalent of losing about 13 of Harvard Law's 1L entering class. Despite improving applicant volume since then, only 1,332 matriculants were added by Fall 2018.
Law schools responded to this decline in applicants in the most obvious way: by enrolling more applicants out of their application pool and becoming less selective.
Once again we see the mid-2010's as the period when law schools faced the most significant challenge. When applications stabilized and began rising, schools began increasing selectivity again. What is notable is that in the 2017-2018 cycle law schools saw a 7.5% increase in applicants, but only increased matriculants by 2.6%. It's possible that schools feared the 2017-2018 cycle was an aberration, and did not want to significantly increase class size for fear of leaving themselves exposed in the 2018-2019 cycle.
Falling bar passage rates nationwide also put pressure on schools to be ever more choosy of who they admit, even in the face of financial struggles resulting from smaller class sizes. The recent ABA decision to require a 75% 2 year bar passage rate for accreditation is likely to increase that pressure. It's an uncomfortable situation for deans: do they attempt to shore up finances that suffered when applicants bottomed out, at possible risk of their accreditation status? Keep an eye on the enrollment data for schools with 2 year rates around 75-80 percent to see which side they come down on.
We also took a look at some LSAT specific data. The LSAT remains the primary test used in law school admissions, though as we will discuss in our 2018-2019 cycle recap the GRE is playing an increasing role.
As applicants dropped, so too did the number of LSAT's administered each cycle. As applicant volume recovered, so did LSAT's administered.
As you can see, the number of LSAT applicants has almost completely recovered to 2011-2012 levels. However, applicants remain down. Why? The average applicant is taking the LSAT more often now than they did in the past.
Applicants are aware that school most often make decisions based on high LSAT and are behaving accordingly. When just a few more points on the LSAT can make literally hundreds of thousands of dollars difference in scholarship or expected lifetime earnings, there is massive incentive to retake the test, and applicants are responding to this incentive.
Nonetheless, LSAC appears to do a good job of maintaining score distribution integrity. Aside from outlier ranges of at the top and bottom of the scoring chart, the share of applicants in a given year applying in each score range remains remarkably consistent. You can see the 2011-2018 share of each range below.
Please keep in mind this is for high scores in each cycle, so it includes repeaters. It's also not inclusive of individuals who took the LSAT and chose not to apply. The above charts show only the share of each range for applicants with an LSAT score that cycle. While we would need total taker results for each administration to determine just how good LSAC is at maintaining the curve across time, the differences in distribution of scores across cycles is a good proxy.
You can also look at the average share in that period here:
And briefly, a look at the last few years of non-LSAT applicants to law school (we only have good data for 3 years)
Unsurprisingly the raw number and share of the pool of non-LSAT applicants increased in 2017-2018, the first cycle where widespread adoption of non-LSAT tests (i.e. the GRE) began. Spoiler alert: it's going to be much higher in the 2018-2019 cycle.
So what to make of all this? There are no grand overall conclusions here, just some observations and what we think is interesting data. We obsess over that stuff at Spivey Consulting. We hope you found some of this interesting and potentially useful. If you have questions/comments/suggestions we're always on the lookout for fun topics and ways to improve; shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.