Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Halfway home

 "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

             -- Max Weber, Politics as Vocation --

For understandable reasons, the law school reform movement has traditionally been dominated by pessimism.  Many critics have assumed that, as long as the federal government maintains its policy of lending the full cost of attendance (not just the full price of tuition) to anyone any ABA law school chooses to admit, no matter what that school chooses to charge, law schools would be able to more or less continue to conduct business as usual, as long as they were willing to continue to slash admissions standards enough to keep enough warm bodies coming through their doors.

That seemed like a reasonable assumption, but it's apparently turning out to be mistaken.

It's fair to say that admissions standards have now been cut as much as they can be cut, practically speaking.  80% of all applicants were admitted to at least one school to which they applied during the 2013-14 cycle.  That number can't go much if at all higher, because a significant minority of applicants will only apply to schools that maintain various levels of real selectivity, and some of those people won't get into any of those schools.

In addition, perhaps 5% of the applicant pool in any year consists of people who have such serious behavioral red flags in their files that no school, even though most desperate, will admit them, if only because of potential liability concerns.

When it comes to law school admissions, we may not be at the metaphorical equivalent of -459.67F  quite yet, but we're very close.  Which means that any further declines in applicants are going to be matched by something close to an equivalent decline in matriculants.

Speaking of which, we're nearly three quarters of the way through the 2014-2015 admissions cycle, and applications are down yet another 7%.  This means we can estimate this fall's entering class will be roughly around 35,300 1Ls, down from 52,500 just five years ago.  Somewhere between 85% to 90% of those people will end up graduating, depending on various assumptions (Given the radical slashing of admissions standards at so many schools, it seems reasonable to assume drop out/flunk out rates may rise. OTOH every lost student hurts the already bleeding bottom line, so it's hard to say whether this will drive the historical non-completion rate below the 11%-12% it's been at in recent years).

Even on the high end, that means no more than 32,000 or so graduates will come out of the class of 2018, of which (being optimistic again) perhaps 90% will eventually pass a bar exam.  So that's around 28,500 or so new prospective lawyers going into a system that can probably absorb -- this has to be no more than an educated guess -- perhaps 20,000 per year.  If you're so inclined you can also add a couple thousand more or less legit "JD advantage" jobs to that total, and suddenly things look very different than the pre-reform status quo, in which schools dropped 45,000 new graduates onto the market every year (Last year's graduating class will be the last for a very, very long time that will be that large).

Now of course the massive contraction in law school graduates is only half the battle. For one thing, it needs to go further -- at least another 10% or 20% from where it will be three years from now, given current applicant levels. For another, and just if not more critically, law school tuition is still far, far too high -- absurdly so, despite increasing discounts off sticker by increasingly desperate schools.

Given likely career outcomes for the vast majority of law graduates who won't get prestige-driven legal jobs (BIGLAW and BIGFED), law school tuition at non-elite schools should be no more than $10,000 to $15,000 per year.  So there's a long way to go.

But there's also lot to celebrate.  The biggest of all the scam factories, Thomas Cooley, fired nearly 60% of its faculty last August. Thomas Jefferson had to give its shiny new building to its creditors, and limps along on life support. Hamline is effectively ceasing to exist, after a face-saving (for its parent university) "merger" with William Mitchell, that will leave the combined institutions with the same number of law students Mitchell had last year.  And after a hurricane of bad publicity, the Infilaw scamsters are on the run.

I continue to write regularly on these issues at Lawyers, Guns and Money, as do others in various venues.  In the last couple of years I've also written a number of things regarding the law school reform movement for academic journals. For example last month I published an article on the effects of stigmatization on lawyers and law graduates -- something that the commenters on this blog taught me a great deal about, and which might interest at least a few of them. (Anyone who doesn't have access to the article via Lexis etc. and who wants to read it can email me at, and I'll send you a copy).

Wherever and whoever you are in this movement, keep up the fight. We're winning.