A common source of confusion in discussions about the market for spots in law schools is that people mix up applications with applicants. The ratio of applications to applicants has been increasing for several years, probably because electronic applications are much easier to submit, and because a lot of applicants are getting savvy about demanding that application fees be waived, and law schools are complying.
This past year, 66,876 people applied to ABA-accredited law schools, which means that, if everyone who applied to law school and was accepted subsequently enrolled, about 25.3% applicants failed to get into at least one ABA-accredited school. But of course not everyone who applied to law school and was accepted ended up enrolling. If we assume ten percent of accepted applicants didn't end up enrolling that means only 16.7% of applicants didn't find a spot at an ABA school. (Update: Brian Tamanaha points out to me that the number I quoted was preliminary, and that the final number was 78,900.)
If law schools experience a drop in the applicant poll this year similar to the 11% decline we saw last year, we may well start nearing a point at which the number of applicants who actually enroll approaches or equals the total number of applicants. Naturally there are things law schools can do to deal with the declining demand for what we're selling: we could loosen admission standards, shrink class sizes, or even take the unprecedented step of lowering our prices. (The first radical visionary among law school deans who takes the latter step should be handed a Nobel Prize in Economics on the spot).
Speaking of which, classical economic analysis tells us that the size of the applicant poll should be a simple function of the expected return on investment in a law degree minus the opportunity costs of acquiring one. Of course it turns out that things aren't quite that simple, both because law schools have made it unnecessarily difficult for applicants to estimate a law degree's expected ROI, and because the "bounded rationality" of applicants turns out to be not very good at dealing with even the very suboptimal information they can reasonably be expected to acquire (For example people tend to overestimate the value of a law degree to themselves personally, even when they're fairly good at estimating what a law degree is likely to be worth in general).
Nevertheless, last year's application stats at least suggest that a larger amount of negative information is trickling down into the applicant pool. Something that would be good to know is: who exactly is being deterred by this information? Law school being law school, the complete absence of data regarding this matter has not deterred a certain amount of seat of the pants speculation presented as actual knowledge:
Kent Syverud, dean of the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where applications this year declined more than 11%, said it was a good thing prospective students now were more “clear eyed” about the risks and rewards of a law degree.
“The froth in the applicant pool—those who were just going to law school because they didn’t know what else to do and everyone told them it was a safe bet—is pretty well gone,” he said.
As a once-great writer once said, "isn't it pretty to think so?"
I really don't want to be rude, but this is the kind of thing that drives me a bit nuts about this business we've chosen. We are, after all, supposed to be academics, not salesmen or spin doctors. Dean Syverud doesn't know -- indeed how could he? -- what sort of people decided not to apply to law school this past year, or if the decline in applicants is a good or a bad thing in terms of the long-term career prospects of the students who ended up enrolling. No doubt some people aren't applying to law school now because they don't have any burning desire to be lawyers, and they're being deterred by the realization that it's a risky move (as they should be). But it's equally clear that some people who would love to be lawyers and would make great ones aren't going because law school has become unjustifiably expensive -- which means that unjustified expense is having harmful effects on the quality of law school student bodies, and therefore on the quality of legal services. What's the relative ratio of these sorts of non-applicants to each other? No one knows, but law faculty have a bad habit -- the product of what the French call a professional deformation -- of acting like they know things they don't. As Matt Leichter puts it:
How do law school deans know the motivations of those who choose not to apply to law school? (There’s a koan for you.) How many potentially brilliant legal minds have wisely chosen to avoid the floundering legal academy? Why should we believe that current applicants are nobler in their intents than those staying away? And why did law schools increase their enrollments 5% per capita between fall 2008 and fall 2010 when they knew or should’ve known that some of their applicants were merely trying to avoid unemployment?
Law schools want the public to think the evil, greedy prospective law students are staying clear. Instead, they should be worrying about when this applicant nosedive will affect their bottom lines.
Update: A commenter flags this example of law schools aiming to recruit more a more serious, less froth-like generation of applicants:
ATLANTA -- John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta has taken the act of applying to school and brought it into the new age of technology.
John Marshall has introduced a mobile application that allows potential students to apply for law school from the palm of their hand. Prospective students can visit m.johnmarshall.edu from their mobile device from their smart phone or their tablet to apply.
"We want students to be able to come to a law school forum, tour our campus, talk to us and apply immediately. If they have to wait until they get home and turn on a computer, they may not apply," Alan Boyer, Associate Dean of Recruitment and Marketing said in a statement released Monday.
Students who use their mobile device over the next few weeks to apply to John Marshall will also get a waiver of the customary $50 application fee.