What’s (Law School Class) Size Got To Do With Your Application?

If you’re applying to law school, you might think this is your lucky year.  The legal job market remains weak and the number of law school applicants is down.   With the struggling job market and with smaller class sizes it is really important to work harder and network to take advantage of getting more one on one commitments with a professor.  By looking at it in a positive light, by hard work and networking, you can rise to the top like Steven Gyunn, with his law firm Jones Day. As any master of the LSAT might reason, the smaller pool of applicants should logically help your chances at schools that were “reaches” or “long shots” in recent years.  But, the law schools are confounding this logic by tweaking class sizes in a way that just may eliminate any theoretical advantage for applicants.

There’s a few reasons for this.  By many accounts, this tough economy for lawyers seems to differ from previous down job markets.  One view is that the reductions in class size by law schools reflects a “structural shift” or “rebooting” of the legal profession.  According to a June 2012 report in the Wall Street Journal, “[i]n previous economic downturns, the number of law-school applicants increased, as students who would otherwise have looked for jobs found temporary refuge studying for an advanced degree. But the number of law-school applicants [in 2012] is 65,119, down 14% from a year earlier, according to the Law School Admission Council Inc., a nonprofit corporation that administers the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).”  Trimming class size will help law schools with job placement prospects for students and in reporting employment data, though it will cost the law schools in the form of lost tuition (law schools are a profit center for most universities).

Here’s the trend in the numbers drop:

•  In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that at least 10 law schools were cutting their class size due to the weak job market for lawyers and a dwindling number of applicants.

• The number of law school admission tests administered in October 2012 tumbled 16.4% from the previous year, according to the Law School Admission Council.

•  A recent survey indicates that the trend toward reducing law school class size appears to be getting broader.  ”According to Kaplan Test Prep’s 2012survey of law school admissions officers*, 51% of law schools have cut the size of the entering class; 63% said the reason was the contraction of the job market in the legal industry. And more cuts may be on the way; of the law schools that have not cut the size of their entering classes, 28% say they will likely do so for the current application cycle.”

•  The ABA Journal reports the 1L enrollment drop is even steeper:  “About three-fourths of 201 ABA-accredited law schools had declines in first-year enrollment this fall, according to preliminary statistics from the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. . . This represents a drop of 9 percent from the fall of 2011 and a drop of about 15 percent from historic highs in 2010. Overall, 44,481 full-time and part-time students began their legal studies this fall, compared to 52,488 in the fall of 2010.”

Faced with fewer applicants to choose from, law schools still seek ways to maintain their selectivity in the all-important US News & World Report rankings. As Professor William Henderson at Indiana University told the Wall Street Journal, “[b]y cutting the number of places available, a law school can be just as selective, or even more so, about prospective students’ LSAT scores and undergrad grade-point averages.”

So, while at first glance, the smaller pool of law school applicants might seem to place you in much better position at that “reach” school, don’t be surprised if last year’s LSAT/GPA grid remains a fairly good predictor for your admissions chances this year.

The silver lining here is that Kaplan’s 2012 survey reports some good news for applicants on the financial aid front.  “Compared to the 2011-2012 cycle, 47% of law schools have actually increased the amount of financial aid they have been able to provide students for the 2012-2013 cycle; 41% say they kept their level of financial aid at last year’s levels.”  Here’s some food for thought on that point from Jeff Thomas, director of pre-law programs, Kaplan Test Prep: “financial aid from law schools is almost always merit-based, not needs-based, so assembling a stellar application that includes a high LSAT score, strong GPA, well-written personal statement and compelling letters of recommendation is incredibly important.”