First there was a surge in law school applications. Then a dearth of well-paying legal jobs. Now law school applications and enrollment have plummeted.
The Great Recession has hit law schools in waves, and a controversial report that analyzes data from across the country says the next one to hit may be a steep rise in the number of law school graduates who fail to pass the bar exam and become lawyers.
The report by Law School Transparency shows how law schools since 2010 have increasingly admitted students who score lower than 150 on the Law School Admissions Test. Schools with a large population of such students were labeled “serious risks” by the report.
The report says scores below 150 put students at risk of failing the bar exam if they graduate law school, and it urges the American Bar Association to install policies that would likely result in many schools losing their accreditation.
Local law school deans, however, denounced the report as simplistic because it largely relies on one data point, the LSAT, to predict bar passage rates.
A spokesperson for the Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT, called the report “irresponsible” for relying on a dated study that linked the LSAT with bar pass rates for students who entered law school in 1991.
The head of the ABA body that accredits law schools said the trend of schools admitting more students with lower LSAT scores is “a serious problem” at some schools. But he said the report would not result in any policy changes concerning sanctions for law schools, which come as the result of a lengthy process.
The report characterized 74 schools, including four in Illinois, as “serious risk” schools, meaning 25 percent of their 2014 class scored a 150 or below on the LSAT. In 2010, there were only 30 such schools.
“We’re letting a lot of people into law school who won’t be able to continue in the profession because they won’t ever pass the bar,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency.
“They will have a lot of debt. Who knows where they’ll end up in the job market, and who knows how well they’ll do at repaying those loans. Those are a lot of unknowns.”
McEntee’s report says law schools have buttressed sagging enrollment by admitting lesser-credentialed applicants. Even so, enrollment has declined by 28 percent since 2010.
Schools admitted 78.1 percent of applicants during the 2013-2014 admission cycle, more than 40 percent higher than the rate a decade ago, the report says.
That is despite the fact that the applicant pool has lost a disproportionate number of its strongest candidates. The number of applicants in the top 20 percent of LSAT-takers declined at more than 2½ times the rate of the bottom 20 percent.
“Law school has become less attractive to everyone, and those who are the highest achieving have the best alternative options,” he said.
The report’s data show the recession has had a similar effect on all Illinois law schools. Their incoming students’ LSAT scores have fallen. The report focuses on the 25th percentile of LSAT scores among admitted students.
Southern Illinois University’s law school, for instance, experienced a six-point drop, from 151 to 144, in its 25th percentile of LSAT takers from 2010 to 2014. DePaul University fell from 156 to 148. John Marshall fell from 151 to 146. And Northern Illinois University fell from 150 to 146.
University of Chicago Law School fell from 168 to 166. Northwestern Pritzker School of Law fell from 166 to 162. University of Illinois College of Law fell from 163 to 158. Loyola University Chicago School of Law fell from 157 to 155. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law fell from 155 to 152.
Jennifer L. Rosato Perea, DePaul’s law dean, said the report’s use of the label “serious risk school,” which is determined by LSAT scores, was unhelpful for students.
“We don’t rely at DePaul, or any law school, on just the LSAT,” she said. “There are a lot of other predictors and factors that we look at that are indicators of success for either law school or the bar.”
Drops in LSAT scores have not yet resulted in anything near a crisis in bar pass rates in Illinois. The report says the 2013 composite bar pass rate for Illinois’ nine law schools was 90 percent. The national figure was 83 percent.
To link LSAT scores with bar pass rates, Law School Transparency’s report cites a study published by the LSAC in 1998 that showed the LSAT and law school grade-point average were the strongest predictors of bar passage for students who graduated in 1994.
Wendy Margolis, director of communications at LSAC, said the organization does not make any claims that the LSAT is a predictive tool for bar pass rates.
“We don’t find it applicable to really anything,” Margolis said of the 1998 study. “We’re surprised all of a sudden to see it quoted all over the place.”
Christopher W. Behan, associate dean at SIU’s law school, said law school curricula has changed and bar exam training has improved since he graduated law school in 1995 — near the time the study took place. He also noted the scoring of the LSAT was different.
“That was a different era in law schools,” Behan said. “It was a sink-or-swim environment.”
While the effect of admitting lower-credentialed students may still be unknown, there is no question that the profile of law students has changed in recent years.
McEntee’s report names a number of stakeholders in the debate — from the federal government’s loan apparatus to law school deans to the ABA — and suggests changes for each. In an interview, he said the most likely changes would come from the law school accreditation council.
Currently, the ABA standards for law school accreditation require 75 percent of a school’s bar exam takers to pass the test within five years, with some exceptions.
“Right now, it’s almost impossible to fail the current standard,” McEntee said.
He proposes eliminating the exceptions and raising the standard to an 85 percent pass rate within two years.
Barry Currier is managing director of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which is governed by a 21-member council that is independent of the ABA and which accredits law schools. Currier said the drop in LSAT scores was concerning and was “under active consideration by the council.”
Currier said his organization’s process involved a dialogue with schools who are struggling to meet bar passage requirements. The council requests information from schools related to how they are helping students pass the bar, among other input.
“The schools know that if at the end of the day they can’t produce a number of graduates with bar passage results with what the standards require, then they will be in difficulty with our process, their accreditation will be called into question,” Currier said.
He added: “We may not move quite as fast as Kyle (the report’s author) suggests. But he’s just one voice out there.”