For legal education, the worst may be yet to come

I confess that I'm not one inclined toward the doomsday scenarios concerning legal education. But the decline in LSAT takers, as I blogged about earlier, portends very significant problems for legal education through at least 2017.

Consider below a chart of the LSATs administered, total JD applicants, and total JD matriculants from 2004 through 2014. The 2013 data is not available yet, so I projected it and the 2014 data. I'll discuss the methodology for the projection and figures of note below.

Predicting the future--particularly predicting the future based upon assumptions derived from the recent past--is a particularly perilous task, but I'll assume the responsibility and offer a few thoughts.

LSAT takers have never been a perfect proxy for law school applicants for a number of reasons. For one, some people, once they take the LSAT, decide not to apply to law school. For another, the figures reflect all LSAT takers, first-time takers and repeaters. 

A couple of trends have actually inflated the LSAT taker statistic--or, put better, reflected a much higher number of LSAT takers than those who actually applied for law school. First, self-imposed standards have become much higher for test takers, especially those near the top, and they are frequently not applying to law school after taking the LSAT.  Second, schools were originally required to report the average of admitted students' LSAT scores, but a recent change allowed schools to report the highest LSAT score instead of the average. The result was a sharp increase of LSAT repeaters, inflating the number of LSAT takers compared to the prospective applicant pool.

Compared to the Fall 2004 cycle, when about 68% of LSAT takers translated into JD applicants, the last three cycles have seen about 50-52% of LSAT takers actually apply to law school. I projected that forward. In 2012, we saw 67,900 applicants; projecting to 2013, it would have been 58,760 (the final numbers should be out soon).

We have two LSAT tests administered for the 2014 cycle, and two to come. We've seen a roughly 10% decline year-over-year. Projecting that year-over-year decline, we can expect around 101,000 LSATs administered. Assuming another 52% LSAT taker-to-applicant yield, we should expect 52,844 applicants.

What's most striking is that 101,000 is the number of JD applicants in the Fall 2004 cycle.  We're essentially expecting half that number of applicants for the Fall 2014 cycle.

We can also then project JD applicants to JD matriculants (or enrolled students). In 2004, about 48% of all applicants ultimately enrolled in law school. That number quickly increased to around 58-60% for the Fall 2007 through Fall 2010 classes. For the Fall 2011, it was 62%. For the Fall 2012, it was 65%.

I assume that, as the prospective applicant pool continues to shrink, schools are not cutting their class sizes at the same rate. So I assume 68% of applicants enroll in law school for Fall 2013, and 72% for Fall 2014. 

Schools had a fairly consistent number of enrolled students from Fall 2004 through Fall 2008, around 48,000 to 49,000. The peak was in the Fall 2010, with 52,500 enrolled JD students. That declined to 48,700 in Fall 2011, and 44,500 in Fall 2012. I project about 40,200 enrolled in Fall 2013, and about 37,800 enrolled in Fall 2014. 

Note another striking figure: there are probably about 52,500 applicants in the Fall 2014 cycle; there were about 52,500 enrolled first-year JD students in Fall 2010.

That large class from the Fall 2010 cycle has now graduated. Schools are generally smaller now, and continue to have smaller incoming classes each year.  So, why might there be a serious problem through at least 2017? Because the Fall 2014 cycle represents a student body that will graduate in 2017. Another decline in enrollments this year will translate to a decline in class size that will persist until they graduate in 2017. 

Of course, my assumptions could be wrong (and very likely are, to some degree!), or conditions could change. But I think it would be safe to assume that the challenges facing legal education will continue to increase next year. 

(UPDATE: An earlier version of this post had a dotted line as a "projection" for the total LSATs administered in the 2012-2013 cycle. But those figures are actual, not projected, and the graph has been updated to change the dotted line into a solid line.)