Pop! Goes the Law School Bubble

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The era of twenty-somethings blindly stampeding their way towards law school seems to be finally, mercifully drawing to a close.

This past admissions cycle, amid a constant drumbeat of bad news about the health of the legal industry, it appears that fewer students sat down to take the LSAT than at any time in the past decade. In the last two years, the number of tests administered has dropped 24 percent, down to 129,925, from a peak of 171,514 in 2009-2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. (Graph courtesy of the LSAT Blog.)

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As I've written before, the legal industry is stagnating, and suffers from a severe overabundance of young graduates, many of whom applied to law schools under the false pretenses that their degree would be an express ticket to a six figure salary. Instead, many graduates are now contending with six figures of crushing debt and murky career prospects.

These new statistics are the latest evidence that young Americans are getting the hint that the market for lawyers is perhaps not what it once was. It wouldn't matter that fewer people were taking the LSAT if the same number of young folks were ultimately showing up for their first year of law school each fall. But that total seems to be dropping, too. According to the LSAC, the number of students who accepted admission to a law school dropped 8 percent last year, from 49,700, to 45,617 -- the smallest incoming class since at least 2002. (Last year's number isn't published on the Council's website yet, but was provided to me by a spokeswoman). The number of applications also dropped dramatically, which could force law schools to ease up on their mind bogglingly expensive tuition.

One might argue that the drop-offs in test takers and applicants are just the result of an improving economy. After all, more people go to law school when the broader job market is weak. But America's slowly brightening employment picture doesn't seem like a likely cause in this instance. At the AmLaw Daily, Matt Leichter forecasts the size of this year's final applicant pool per law school, and compares it to the trend in the United States' employment to population ratio. When this few people are working, you be expecting to see an increase in law school applications.*  

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So no, it's not the economy. It's more likely that the bad press surrounding the legal academy and the job market for young attorneys is taking its toll. About 45,000 new JDs will still graduate this year, and that will still probably be too many. But we're seeing the early stages of a course correction. The kids are, thankfully, listening. 

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*For those stats sticklers out there: Yes, the number of law schools has also grown over the years. But even accounting for that increase, the number of applicants per school is still below what past trends would indicate. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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