Harvard Law School. Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Harvard Law School. Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Are Top College Grads Starting to Think About Law School Again?

Has the law school so-called “brain drain” stopped?

It’s been well-documented that the graduates of elite universities are applying to law school in smaller numbers. But a recent look at 11 elite colleges by Keith Lee of the legal blog Associate’s Mind suggests that law schools’ worst days could be coming to an end.

In an analysis of Law School Admission Council data, Lee found a 1.2 percent year-to-year increase in graduates from these 11 top schools applying to law school — the first increase in this group of schools since 2010, Lee noted.

The schools Lee tracked are all in the Ivy League, as well as some other top schools. We’ve listed them below, accompanied by their ranking in U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges.

Princeton University #1

Harvard University #2

Yale University #3

University of Chicago #3

Columbia University #5

Stanford University #5

Duke University #8

University of Pennsylvania #8

Dartmouth College #11

Brown University #14

Cornell University #15

Of these 11 schools Lee has been tracking, only Columbia, Harvard and Stanford saw a decline in the number of graduates applying for a law degree. Brown, Chicago, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Princeton, Penn, and Yale all saw their numbers increase. These schools, Lee said, “are seen as where the best law students come from.”

This is potentially good news for law schools looking to attract top talent: Since 2008, the number of these top tier graduates applying to law school has dropped 40.92 percent, from 3,282 students to 1,939, according to Lee’s calculations. The post-recession peak was in 2010, when 3,705 students from the 11 above-listed schools applied to law school, and the biggest drop occurred between 2010 and 2012. The numbers have started to level off since then, Lee found.

“Do I suddenly think people are super optimistic about the legal industry or want to go back to law?,” said Lee. “No, there hasn’t been any indication of that happening, and if you read annual reports about the industry, people are still predicting it to be flat. I wonder if the pendulum just swung so far one way, that now people are looking and thinking maybe law school might be a good thing.”

Lee, who practices law at the Hamer Law Group in Birmingham, started blogging about the legal industry in 2010 while a 3L at the Birmingham School of Law. He’s the author of The Marble and the Sculptor: From Law School to Law Practice, a 2013 guide book for young and aspiring lawyers.

Big Law Business caught up with him to learn a bit more about what these latest application numbers mean. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Big Law Business: When did you start tracking this data, and why?

Lee: I originally did it in 2013. There was a lot of discussion at the time about who was going to law school. Everyone was still reeling from the general implosion. The legal industry got hit really hard in particular, partially as a result of larger systemic changes but also because of the recession. I started to look at the law school data, and I thought, ‘You know what would be interesting to look at whether it would impact the type of people who would go to law school.’ I was able to pull out all this LSAC data and really see what was happening.

BLB: What have you found since then? What have the overall trends been since 2008, when the financial crisis hit?

Lee: In 2008, things were flat. Then there was a brief uptick from top university students in 2010. But since, then it fell off a cliff. It completely dropped in a very dramatic fashion. Students from top universities are down 48 percent since 2010. Somehow, they are getting the message that law school is no longer the winning bet that it once was. But this slight uptick is maybe a pendulum effect, or possibly an effect of social and cultural changes.

The last time I looked, in 2014, applications from colleges I had never heard of were going up. The growth rate from undergraduate institutions who were sending students to law school was higher among lower ranked universities that were suddenly having these big jumps in students going to law schools, and at the same time elite university law students were going in less and less numbers than before.

If you look at law schools’ average LSAT intakes, their scores have dropped. Not at elite schools, but at second tier and third tier schools. That’s indicative of the fact that the crop of people coming into law schools in the last five years haven’t been the same level or caliber of student as they have in the past. The lower ranked law schools are struggling with this.

This is a concern because we need smart people to be lawyers. We need smart people in the justice system. If the legal industry can’t attract the top talent like it once did, that’s not just bad for law firms, that’s bad for society, that’s bad for government, that’s bad for courts and judges.

BLB: Why are you interested in the top schools in particular?

Lee: Back in 2013, there was a fear of a brain drain, where the smart people wouldn’t be going to law school anymore. And they didn’t, they stopped. Students at these universities were like, ‘Law school is a bad bet. We don’t need to go there anymore.’ They also have lots more options. They can go to medical school, they can get an MBA, they can go into the tech field.

Law school and the legal industry have been hammered in the past few years. The debt is bad, the jobs aren’t there, the industry is shrinking. I think the savvy, well-educated students who are savvy consumers of information just looked at law schools and realized, ‘Hey, I don’t need to go there unless that’s really what I want to do.’

BLB: So what do you think this uptick means?

Lee: I’m not exactly sure. It kind of flattened out in the last couple years, and this is the first year where there’s a blip of interest. Do I suddenly think people are super optimistic about the legal industry or want to go back to law? No, there hasn’t been any indication of that happening, and if you read annual reports about the industry, people are still predicting it to be flat. I wonder if the pendulum just swung so far one way, that now people are looking and thinking maybe law school might be a good thing.

Hopefully all the bad news in the last few years just weeded everyone out who just graduated from school and said, ‘I really like Tom Clancy books and don’t know what to do with my life, so I’ll go to law school.’ This is for students who are looking to go to law school for the right reasons.

BLB: It seems like big changes in the past were due to changes in the economy. Do you think there are any social or cultural factors at play?

Lee: A year from now, if this is totally different, I’ll wonder what the Trump effect is. I think justice issues have really come to the front in the past year, and lot of students in the younger generation are very socially conscious and I’m wondering if this is the first glimmer and sign of that.

University students are really passionate about politics and really interested in seeing what they can do to make a difference in the world, and I think there is going to be a draw within this new generation of students, to the legal system.

It’s probably a little too early to read into it, but if I had to bet 100 dollars about whether the numbers would go up or down next year, I’d say go up, just by virtue of the Trump presidency.

Let us know what you make of the findings at biglawbusiness@bna.com.

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