Law school application numbers are down (and why your LSAT score should not be)

    Have you heard the good news? Law school applications are down 20 percent from where they were in 2012. Compared to their peak in 2010, the decrease is even more striking: 38 percent. From the looks of it, you’ll be competing for admission with the smallest applicant pool in 30 years. Good for you! 

    Now, you may have mixed feelings about these numbers. We do. Granted, it will probably be easier to get into law school than it was in 2010, with aggregate admission rates possibly exceeding 80 percent this year. But here’s the catch: “crushing debt” and “diminishing employment prospects,” as the Gray Lady eloquently puts it, make it even more imperative to do well on the test! And if those aren’t good enough reasons to ace the LSAT (they should be), let me add a few more:

    1. The decline in applications will disproportionately affect lower-ranked schools. To go to law school these days, you have to be pretty serious about it. Law school is no longer a default choice for the undecided, or at least it shouldn’t be. Law schools will probably see fewer “casual” applicants than in previous years, leaving those with solid numbers to represent a higher share of the overall applicant pool. Expect to find this fact pattern as a Must Be True question in October.
    2. Competition at the top will still be intense. A closer look at the applicant counts by region can be revealing. Although 82 schools are experiencing more than a 30 percent drop in applications, law schools in New England have seen a relatively modest 14 percent reduction. Not coincidentally, New England has the highest concentration of top law schools in the country. Furthermore, assuming none of the top-14 schools decide to cut their class size, the combined size of their entering class will be approximately 4,500—representing about 8% of the total applicant pool. Chances are, you still need to ace the LSAT to get into one of those schools.
    3. Many law schools will probably cut their class size again, just like they did last year, so that competition for each spot may not decrease as much as you hope. In 2012, 149 law schools experienced a decline in first-year enrollment, with 90 schools reporting declines exceeding 10 percent. Even if the median LSAT scores at such schools also declined (by a point or two), class size eroded by a greater margin. This suggests that schools are often willing to limit their class size instead of digging deeper into the applicant pool.
    4. In 2012, the average law school graduate had a 50/50 chance of finding a law-related job after graduation. And thanks to the infamous bi-modal salary distribution curve, the same average graduate stood to earn significantly less than the published mean starting salary for an attorney. Now, more than ever, you don’t want to be an average law school grad. Now, more than ever, you don’t want an average LSAT score.
    5. Finally, if the pool of 170+ scoring applicants is more limited than in previous years, you should try even harder to join the club! Law schools will try even harder to woo you in, which means that a top-1% (or even top-5%) score can get you merit-based financial aid, possibly at a higher-caliber school than you might expect. In this economy, the prospect of free tuition is certainly not something to scoff at.

    What does all of this mean? If you are headed to law school in the fall, a high LSAT score is not merely a luxury. It’s a necessity.