Law School Applicants

LSAC has released its first report on the current crop of law school applicants. Paul Campos offers a trenchant analysis that I expand upon below. After reviewing the numbers, I explore the question that nags at so many of us: Where are all of those applicants going if not to law school?

Recent History

Paul first charts the number of applicants to ABA-accredited law schools during the last four years. Those numbers, drawn from LSAC sources, are:

Applicants for fall 2010: 87,900
Applicants for fall 2011: 78,500
Applicants for fall 2012: 67,900
Applicants for fall 2013: 59,426 (preliminary)

Many people assume that fall 2010 represents the high water mark for law school applicants, but that’s not true. As Paul noted in a similar post last year, the number of law school applicants peaked in 2004 when 100,600 individuals applied to ABA-accredited schools. Applicants fell significantly for several years after 2004, rose modestly in 2009-2010, and have plummeted for the last three years.

As noted above, we have only preliminary figures for the number of students who applied to join this year’s 1L class. In recent years, however, the final figure has not varied by more than 0.5% from the preliminary number. If the final figure for 2013 varies that much, the true number of applicants might have been as high as 59,724.

That’s a decline of 32.1% in the number of applicants between fall 2010 and fall 2013. From the 2004 peak, the decline has been a very substantial 40.6%.

Current Applicants

That brings us to this year’s applicants. LSAC reports that 14,171 individuals had submitted applications by December 6, 2013. That’s a 13.6% decrease compared to this point last year.

The admissions cycle, however, is still young. Last year, a noticeable number of students applied to law school in the late winter and early spring, perhaps responding to news reports that applicants were down and hopefuls might obtain more favorable spots or scholarships. If the same happens this year, late applicants might narrow the gap between this year and last. If so, 13.6% could overestimate the applicant drop for the current year.

Unfortunately, a more conservative method leads to an even higher projected drop in applicants. Let’s look, as Paul does, at the percentage of applicants who had submitted their applications by this point last year. According to LSAC, that figure was 28%: By December 7, 2012, 28% of the year’s eventual applicants had submitted at least one law school application.

If applicants follow the same pattern this year, then we can expect a total of 50,611 applicants by the time the admissions cycle ends in August. That’s 14.8% fewer applicants than the preliminary figure for this year (2013), and it’s 15.3% less than the final 2013 figure I projected above.

First-Year Enrollment

This is, of course, grim news for law schools. Some applicants are not qualified for admission, and others decide not to attend law school. 50,611 applicants will yield a much smaller class. I agree with Paul Campos that we may welcome no more than 35,000 first-year students to accredited law schools in Fall 2014. That’s one-third less than the number of students who enrolled in Fall 2010.

Where Are They Going?

What has happened to those law school applicants? What are they doing instead of attending law school? I can’t answer for all of them, but I can offer some suggestions. In doing that, it’s particularly important to note that interest in law school began declining in 2005–not 2011.

The last decade has witnessed the emergence of many new professional jobs, especially in computer science, health care, and engineering. Take a look at this list of new occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics added to its surveys in 2012.

Those brand-new occupations include several that would interest bright high school students: information security analyst, computer network architect, web developer, computer network support specialist, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, nurse practitioner, and genetic counselor. Those new occupations already employ more than 629,000 people–more than the number of judges, magistrates, lawyers, and judicial clerks (620,340 total) reported in the same occupational survey.

This survey includes only salaried workers, so it omits solo practitioners, law firm partners, and other self-employed lawyers. Even if we double the number of employed lawyers, however, the comparative number of jobs in these competing occupations is eye-opening.

Remember, too, that these eight categories are brand-new fields: graduates won’t face the entrenched interests, established workers, and long career ladders that new lawyers face. These jobs, moreover, only scratch the surface of alternative careers. The BLS recently added web developers to its occupation list, but it already (and separately) counts computer programmers, software developers (applications), and software developers (systems). Almost 1.3 million people hold salaried positions in one of those three categories.

Salaries for these new occupations range from comfortable to excellent. Nurse anesthetists, the highest paid category, average $154,390, well above the $130,880 average for lawyers or the $102,470 mean for judges and magistrates. The educational requirements for nurse anesthetists, notably, are similar to those for lawyers: They complete a BS in nursing as well as a 2-3 master’s program in anesthesia.

Employees in some other categories average lower salaries than lawyers, but need only a BA to enter their field. Most software developers possess only a BA. Yet the applications developers average $93,280 per year while the systems developers average $102,550. There were, by the way, more than 978,000 salaried employees in those two categories in 2012.

The lowest paying job among the ones I’ve cited is for genetic counselors. Those workers require a master’s degree and currently average only $55,820 per year. But genetics research and applications are exploding; this is one of the most intriguing, socially important, and potentially lucrative fields in the new economy. Today’s genetics counselor may advance with the field.

But That Requires Math!

We are conditioned to think of law students and STEM graduates as two different breeds. Law students notoriously dislike math, and some of them had unfortunate encounters with organic chemistry or other college science courses. This history feeds the notion that STEM careers can’t compete with law school. If students can’t do the math, they won’t qualify for these new occupations–leaving law school as their best option. Right?

The truth is, most of us did just fine in high school math and science. If we’d wanted to be software developers or nurse anesthetists–if those jobs had even existed when many of us graduated from high school–we could have pursued those paths in college and beyond. Today’s bright high school students are equally capable of pursuing those paths, and the paths have been beckoning.

Computers, genetics, and other technologies have made science cool for today’s smartest students–in the same way that Perry Mason was cool for us. If you’re a bright 17-year-old today, do you dream of drafting a killer discovery motion or designing a killer app? Would you rather be helping a client through a divorce or through life-saving surgery? Do you want to counsel clients on avoiding foreclosure or on avoiding genetically determined risks?

Don’t get me wrong: I love the law, and I know recent graduates with good legal careers. But I also know many unhappy law school graduates and many happy scientists. if we want to address the marked decline in law school applicants, we need to understand the full scope of the current workplace.

  • kindasorta

    I don’t think that the BLS’ notion of an “average” lawyer’s salary being $130k should pass without challenge, but it would suffice to say that most new JDs would be lucky to make half that much money while owing that much or more.

    I don’t know what the ROI issues are for software development or nursing, but it would be hard for them to be worse than the average JD paying anywhere near the sticker price of an ABA-accredited law school.

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