Building the Future of Justice: Law School Applicants 2019
Kellye Y. Testy (President & CEO, Law School Admissions Council)
Last year on this blog, I was happy to report an 8.1 percent increase in U.S. law school applicants and an 8.7 percent increase in law school applications for the 2018-2019 admission cycle. These increases were the largest since 2010 when a steep downturn began, the effects of which are still reverberating in American legal education. For this year — the 2019-2020 admission cycle — applicants have again increased, but more modestly, and there are important trend lines to watch as the next cycle begins.
With nearly all our 2019-2020 applicant and application data accounted for, as of July 31, 2019 we’re seeing 62,427 applicants to U.S. law schools which represents a 3.3 percent increase over last year and an 11.6 percent increase over a two-year period. Note that you can follow this and other data by checking our data library, which is updated daily. We’re also seeing an increase of 7.3 percent in the number of LSATs administered (26.7 percent when looking at a two-year period), and a 3.2 percent increase in new test takers. Because almost all applicants begin their enrollment journey by taking the LSAT, national trends in test takers help preview the coming cycles.
Although the number of applications to U.S. law schools declined slightly by 1.5 percent to 379,696, we’re seeing an increase of 7.1 percent over a two-year period. The average number of schools to which candidates apply has remained stable for several years at around six. LSAC has kept school report fees flat this year. We’ve also introduced new packages to help encourage candidates to apply to a sufficient number of schools so that they can find the best fit for their goals. LSAC will soon be introducing a new tool for prospective JD and other law candidates to use to more easily navigate the journey from their initial interest in law school through enrollment. We will have more to share on this in the coming months.
When broken down by the applicants’ state of permanent residence, we find modest increases from every region of the U.S., except for a 1.4 percent decrease in the Midwest. The percentage of test takers in each LSAT score band remained relatively stable, as has been the case over many years because of the test’s quality and stability. Applicants, however, as shown in the chart below, make different decisions about whether or not to apply, and this year, applicants in the highest score band are applying at a lower rate than they did last year. Compared to two years ago, however, applicants in this score band are up.
A deeper look at the data shows some encouraging progress for diversity, a core focus for LSAC and our member schools. When we break applicants down by ethnicity, we see substantial gains among both Hispanic/Latino (8.7 percent) and Asian (7.5 percent) applicants, with other ethnic groups remaining relatively stable. The number of female applicants continues to grow this year, reaching nearly 34,000 or 54 percent of all genders – while males applied in roughly the same numbers as last year. We are seeing an increasing number of applicants opt not to identify their gender and/or their ethnicity.
As these numbers are considered, it is vital to keep in view the percentages of college graduates for each of the categories we track. Because legal education must draw upon the pool of college graduates, the diversity of that pipeline directly impacts the diversity of legal education. At present, the rate of admission to law school for most ethnic groups matches or exceeds their rate of college graduation. For this reason, programs that seek to improve structural inequalities along all stages of the educational journey are critical to measurable progress. Further, programs that encourage diverse applicants who might come to legal education other than directly from undergraduate studies (e.g., after military or work experience) are vital to achieving greater diversity and equity in the legal profession.
With the academic year about to begin, we will follow up to provide a profile of matriculants once data is available. In the meantime, as we look ahead to the 2020-2021 cycle of applications already beginning, it is likely that next year’s volume may look more like this year’s numbers than the spike we saw the prior year. While NALP’s recent report on the job market showed good news in terms of the percentage of law graduates employed in JD required and preferred jobs, those improvements are largely due to a closer match between the national volume of law grads and jobs, rather than through significant increases in the number of jobs available. As technology continues to reshape the practice of law, the volume of traditional lawyering jobs is likely to continue to contract. Continued challenges to federal and state funding for legal services also constrains the number of public service and public interest jobs available despite high interest in these jobs from law graduates.
Law schools have rightly been restrained in increasing enrollment. Last year, enrollment increased around 3 percent even though the number of applicants increased over 8 percent. While this is the right approach both for the quality of legal education as well as for job-market calibration, we all know that our nation continues to suffer from vast unmet legal needs as well as an undersupply of the critical thinking skills that are legal education’s unique signature. The task for all of us in legal education is to find innovative ways to address these gaps. Those solutions must include leveraging technology to increase access to justice, innovating highquality but more affordable JD options for candidates who want to use their degree to help close the justice gap, and helping our graduates and employers understand and translate the value of a legal education for leadership roles in business, government, and other sectors that require critical thinking and creative problem solving.
I look forward to continuing to work closely with the deans, faculty, and staff of our member schools as we tackle these challenges together. A special word of thanks to the outstanding admission deans and professionals who continue to serve their schools so well in building the future of justice amid a world of challenge and change. We are here for you and your schools as your trusted hub for assessment, data, and technology services as, together, we seek to build a more just and prosperous world.