Apr 24, 2012

LSAT Numbers Fall in Texas, Nationally

Law School Admission Tests are down by 16 percent over the course of the last admissions cycle signaling dips in interest in the legal field following media coverage of the realities of the legal field. Photo Illustration by Shannon Kintner.

By Jordan Humphreys
For Reporting Texas

Have bad economic times started to blunt college grads’ time-honored enthusiasm for pursuing legal careers? A recent sharp drop in the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test suggests some kind of reassessment may be under way.

In the latest application cycle, the number of tests taken fell by more than 16 percent nationally to 129,925, a 10-year low, as 25,000 fewer tests were taken for fall 2012 admissions than the year before.

Debbie Kubena, a pre-law adviser at The University of Texas, says that students may be realizing law school isn’t the secure “Law & Order”-style career choice they once thought it was. They are “becoming leery of a degree that promises enormous debt and grim job prospects,” she said.

At the nine law schools in the state, the annual tuition ranges from Texas ($38,697, out of state) and the Baylor Law School ($36,080, in and out of state) to Texas Southern ($12,556) and Texas Tech ($14,120).

“Historically, when the economy suffers, many people see going to law school as a way to ride out a tough job market,” Kubena said. “People are perhaps realizing that maybe that’s not such a great plan after all.”

Top-ranking Texas law schools appear to have felt the LSAT effect, but administrators say they remain confident. Baylor Law School was hit with a drop in applicants, but the administration said they will likely take in the same number of students as in years past, with little effect on class sizes or the school’s rigor.

“While the drop in LSAT takers has corresponded with a drop in applicant numbers, we have seen an overall increase in visitors to our recruiting events and our school,” Baylor Law’s director of admissions, Nicole Masciopinto, said.

At The University of Texas School of Law in Austin, applicants fell by 9 percent in the last year, just under the national 10 percent decline in applications, but the school says the decrease hasn’t jeopardized its applicant pool.

“Austin’s a great place to live so we don’t have much trouble putting together a strong 1-L group [students in their first year of law school] each year,” said Kirston Fortune, assistant dean for communications at the school.

According to David Sheppard, an Austin-based criminal defense attorney, the trend is likely to affect lower-ranked law schools before top-tier venues, like UT. “The schools that are second and third choices on students’ lists might see a drop in the quality of students they admit,” Sheppard said.

Law school administrators attribute changing attitudes toward legal education to students’ taking the decision more seriously. Baylor said that its admissions office has been getting more questions about the substance and value of a law degree in recent years.

“Applicants are getting better at educating themselves,” Masciopinto said. “We have seen rising interest in employment statistics and the ability of a program to prepare a student to practice the law,”

Heba Dafashy, a senior at UT who will be graduating in May took the LSAT but decided against applying to law school, amid the news media’s focus on dimming job prospects, like those of unemployed Georgetown alums.

“I think there’s just been more publicity about [the downsides of law school] discouraging people,” Dafashy said.  She ultimately decided that a career in international human rights advocacy didn’t require a law degree, but said she may retake the admissions test just in case.

Kubena said that many students are realizing that a law degree isn’t as versatile as they once thought. “For many years, it was thought that a legal education was a good idea because it would make people more marketable in other professions,” she said. “Not so. A J.D. is great if you want to be a lawyer, but it rarely opens the doors into other career fields.”

Kubena said that, despite the fact that the media have called attention to the utility of legal education, many of the pre-law students she advises are enthusiastic about a legal careers and don’t seem to be focusing on salaries and finding jobs after law school.

“I’m afraid in many cases, this will happen only after they’ve earned their J.D. and can’t find a job in the legal field,” she said. “While my pre-law students are very confident about their own abilities to do well in law school and pass the bar, many have not looked hard into the reality of the job market.”

Sheppard said he’s glad to see fewer students going to law school because the field had become saturated. He said the result has been jobs that are harder to find and students who don’t understand the reality of the career for which they’re preparing.

Relaying a story about a woman who was offered a job in her last year of law school only to have it rescinded six months later, Sheppard said, “You won’t find anyone in the legal field who says we’re in need. We have more than enough lawyers.”