The wrong sort of law school applicants, visualized

I have just been thinking, and I have come to a very important decision. These are the wrong sort of bees.

Are they?

Quite the wrong sort. So I should think they would make the wrong sort of honey, shouldn’t you?

Would they?

Yes. So I think I shall come down.
— A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926)

There's good news and bad news for law schools. The good news is that total law school applicants appear to be reaching the bottom. After projections last year that the worst may be yet to come, it appears that the Class of 2018 will have only slightly fewer applicants than the Class of 2017. Current projections are about a 2.8-point drop in applicants, and that gap may narrow if recent trends of late applicants continue.

Of course, it doesn't take much effort to notice that despite the bottoming out, it's still very much below recent trend, both for projected applicants and projected matriculants.

But the bad news is that the quality of the applicants. In short, the wrong sort of applicants are applying.

LSAC sends occasional updates, its "Current Volume Summary," describing trends in applicants. At this point last year, LSAC reports it had 87% of the preliminary final applicant count, which means we are fairly late in the applicant cycle.

It also circulates a breakdown of the high LSAT score of 2015 ABA applicants, with the percentage change from last year. The numbers are, I think, fairly shocking.

While the raw totals of applicants are largely unchanged (i.e., down slightly), the quality of those applicants is down fairly significantly. The only places that have seen an increase in applicants are those scoring a 144 or lower.  Applicants scoring a 145 to 149 are largely flat. In contrast, applicants with a high score of 165 or higher are down double-digits, with the steepest decline among the most elite applicants.

Granted, there are only a handful of those with a high score of 175 or higher (this year, just 481 applicants). But the numbers do reflect the predicament law schools find themselves in. They can certainly fill their classes with applicants, from a pool of comparable size. But the composition of the pool is worse than it was even last year. And as school confront lower quality applicants, with lower predictors, they face the back-end problem of higher bar failure rates, and likely adverse employment outcomes.

So the first level of data tells us some good news for law schools--applicants are not down as much as one might have feared, and the bottom may be approaching. But the second level of data tells us some bad news--applicant quality has worsened, in such a way that law schools are still confronted with as difficult a choice as if they had simply experienced an overall drop in applicants. How schools react remains to be seen.