Legal diplomas are apparently losing luster.
The organization behind the Law School Admission Test reported that the number of tests it administered this year dropped by more than 16 percent, the largest decline in more than a decade.
The Law School Admission Council reported that the LSAT was given 129,925 times in the 2011-12 academic year. That was well off the 155,050 of the year before and far from the peak of 171,514 in the year before that. In all, the number of test takers has fallen by nearly 25 percent in the last two years.
The decline reflects a spreading view that the legal market in the United States is in terrible shape and will have a hard time absorbing the roughly 45,000 students who are expected to graduate from law school in each of the next three years. And the problem may be deep and systemic.
Many lawyers and law professors have argued in recent years that the legal market will either stagnate or shrink as technology allows more low-end legal work to be handled overseas, and as corporations demand more cost-efficient fee arrangements from their firms.
That argument, and news that so many new lawyers are struggling with immense debt, is changing the way law school is perceived by undergrads. Word is getting through that law school is no longer a safe place to sit out an economic downturn — an article of faith for years — and that strong grades at an above-average school no longer guarantees a six-figure law firm job.
“For a long time there has been this culturally embedded perception that if you go to law school, it will be worth the money,” said Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency, a legal education policy organization. “The idea that law school is an easy ticket to financial security is finally breaking down.”
Law schools have also suffered through some withering press in the last couple of years. Some blogs, most of them written by unemployed or underemployed graduates, have accused law schools of enticing students with shady data. Attention has focused on a crucial statistic: the percentage of graduates who are employed nine months after graduation.
In recent months, class-action lawsuits have been filed against more than a dozen law schools, charging that students were snookered into enrolling by postgraduate employment figures that were vastly, and fraudulently, inflated. Even if law schools are able to defeat these lawsuits — and many legal scholars anticipate they will — the media attention has been bruising. Steve Schwartz, an LSAT tutor, said the new LSAT figures were not a surprise, given the steady decline in the number of students seeking one-on-one tutoring.
“This is a major turn of events,” he wrote of the newly reported test numbers on his LSAT Blog, “The tide is turning, folks.”
For some law schools, the dwindling number of test-takers represents a serious long-term challenge.
“What I’d anticipate is that you’ll see the biggest falloff in applications in the bottom end of the law school food chain,” said Andrew Morriss of the University of Alabama School of Law. “Those schools are going to have significant difficulty because they are dependent on tuition to fund themselves and they’ll either have to cut class size to maintain standards, or accept students with lower credentials.”
If they take the second course, Mr. Morriss said, it would hurt the school three years later because there is a strong correlation between poor performance on the LSAT and poor performance on the bar exam. If students start failing the bar, then the prestige of the school will drop, which would mean lowering standards even more. “At that point,” Mr. Morriss said, “the school is risking a death spiral.”