Mitchell isn't happy about the effect criticisms of legal education are having on the willingness of prospective law students to actually drop a couple of hundred thousand bucks to get a law degree. The financial effect of those criticisms on law school bottom lines appears to be considerable: First-year enrollment has dropped from around 52,000 to 44,500 (a 15% decline) over the past two years. That's a loss of about $240,000,000 in revenue, or around an average of $1.2 million per ABA law school.
A law professor writes:
I agree completely with the point in the first graph: From what I know of law school budgets, most could be slashed by half or even two thirds with little or no loss of educational quality.I have two comments (a question and a comment, really) about your November 14 post. First, don’t you think there is a lot of room for law schools to cut spending? I certainly think there is here at [ ]. In about 10 minutes, I could come up with a long list of things we could either stop spending money on altogether, or stop spending so much money on. If my cuts were enacted, nobody would really notice except for some people who would lose their jobs, and a few others who would have slightly more work.Second, it seems to me that the number of law school applicants is perhaps not quite as important as your post suggests, because all but the worst handful of law schools can simply lower their admissions standards as much as necessary to enroll the same number of students as last year. Sure, you take a big hit in the rankings, but given the choice between sliding in the rankings and losing tuition revenue, I’m afraid most law schools would choose the former. Law school applications would have to really plummet—by 50%? 80%?—before even a relatively low-ranked school like mine is actually forced to have smaller first-year classes. Put differently, if we really just want 420 students in our 1L class, ranking and quality be damned, all we really need is 420 applicants who will accept our offer of admission. I submit that we are a looooooooooong way from not having that.
As to the second claim, this seems to me to be a rather complicated question. The constraints on filling seats by dropping admission standards are:
(1) The rankings. This is a collective action problem, and therefore a relatively trivial barrier in the long run. I agree with the writer that when push comes to shove schools would rather drop standards that cut class sizes, and we're already seeing a good deal of this (for example American let its median LSAT decline by three points -- a huge statistical drop -- in order to avoid a massive cut in the size of its entering class this fall).
(2) Bar passage rates. If enough of a school's graduates fail the bar it can threaten the school's ABA accreditation. Many low-ranked schools have reacted to this threat by doing as much as possible to transform themselves into something like three-year bar review courses. That strategy seems fairly successful, as the gap between bar passage rates is not nearly as large as the differences between admissions standards between high and low ranked schools would suggest they ought to be. Still there are limits to this strategy. It's unlikely that people with 135 LSAT scores can achieve acceptable bar passage rates no matter how much effort schools put into that goal.
(3) Loss of cultural cachet. This seems to me to be the biggest long-term problem with simply dropping all pretense to selectivity in admissions. If law school comes to be regarded as something of an academic joke -- if 100 Cooleys bloom -- this could have some dire long-term effects on the willingness of prospective students to chase the "prestige" of a law degree -- and prestige is a big part of what law schools have left to sell.