20% Increase in LSATs: Who Wins, Who Doesn’t

One of The ABA Journal’s top 10 stories for Thanksgiving week (of all times), was the 19.8% increase in the number of September LSAT takers, to almost 61,000, up about 10,000 from the fall of 2008. That is a stunning increase, almost certainly due to the weak overall economy; for the full four-exam annual June 2008-February 2009 LSAT cycle, there were 151,000 LSAT takers, already up 6.4% from 2007-2008 (data available through membership as part of the “LSAC Volume Summary”).  A 19.8% increase for this year’s full cycle would mean that over 180,000 LSATs will be administered.

Law schools can’t (and don’t want to) accommodate 20% more air in the admissions balloon.  Over the last 5 years, first-year enrollment at ABA-accredited law schools was nearly flat, increasing by an insignificant 200 total seats, to 49,100 (data available through membership as part of the “LSAC Volume Summary”).  If you eliminate from the raw number of LSAT takers the approximately 25% of people who take the LSAT more than once, about 136,000 individual test-takers this year (far more than ever before) may compete for those seats.

One Winner:  Law Schools.  Who reaps the benefit of so many more people wanting to take the LSAT and go to law school?  Law schools, for one—but not all in the same measure.  We think that the benefits will be disproportionately distributed to middle- and lower-ranked schools.

The super-elite law schools have always had their pick of candidates and, assuming that the scores of the additional takers will be spread evenly across the spectrum, the top law schools will just have more top-credentialed people to choose from.  But their admission standards are likely to remain basically the same.

Not so as you move down the rankings and reputation ladder.  And you don’t have to move far.  The super-elite schools won’t be able to absorb as high a proportion of the most desired candidates as in the past, and those candidates not accepted will “waterfall” down.  The waterfall effect will accelerate as one moves down the falls, since at each point, there will be additional feeder springs, i.e., more and more candidates who, last year or the year before, would have gotten into a top 5, 10, 20, 25, 50, etc., school, but won’t this year.  The schools on the receiving end of the growing waterfall have a remarkable opportunity, without any extra effort, to substantially upgrade the LSAT and GPA numbers of their first-year class.  The waterfall is their windfall.

Not Winners: Law School Applicants.  Unfortunately, the quality of law schools’ education can’t and won’t change as fast as the credentials of their students.  Law schools next year will provide essentially the same education they did last year, but to a more selective group of students.  More important, law schools won’t be able to significantly improve their students’ post-law school career opportunities in a short time.

What does that mean for an incoming law student?  A student applying to law school for the fall of 2009 simply had a much better chance of admission at any given law school than that student’s identical twin entering in the fall of 2010 or 2011.  And the difference in their chances grows as one moves down the law school ranking and reputation ladder (remember the waterfall).

Assuming that law employment cutbacks and hiring freezes, both in law firms and in-house positions, end soon (i.e., holding the number and quality of post-law school employment opportunities constant), an entering student who in 2009 would have been admitted to a top 10 school but in 2010 or 2011 will be admitted only to a school ranked 11-25 is, on average, likely to lose about $120,000 in her or his first three years of post law-school employment; a student who slipped from an 11-25 ranked school to a “below 25” school will lose even more (but without having made significantly lower tuition payments or incurring less debt than those who found a way to beat the intensified competition).  And that is to say nothing about markedly greater career flexibility that comes from a more prestigious law degree.

To have the same admission chances as last year, any student planning to take the LSAT and enter law school in the fall of 2010 or 2011 will need a higher LSAT score and a much stronger application package.  By definition, most won’t; they will instead ride the waterfall.

Another Winner: LSAT Prep Classes and Admissions Advisors.  Which brings us to a second beneficiary of the increase in LSAT takers: LSAT test prep courses and advising services (including, for full disclosure, Advise-In Solutions).  Prospective applicants who are not among the very few with the ability, confidence and dedication to get their highest LSAT score on their own (and who have superb pre-law advisors) will increase demand for LSAT prep classes and private LSAT tutoring and advising.

As with law schools, this is a free benefit, especially to the large-class, volume-based LSAT prep courses who can add capacity at will.  And as with law schools, it’s not necessarily a benefit to LSAT takers and applicants.  Why?  Because students who this year take the same LSAT review class or prep program they would have taken last year will end up with the same score as they would have last year, and will ride the waterfall.  The same marginal improvement over a base score won’t be good enough to maintain the same admissions probabilities.

Law school applicants have to use a different strategy now.  Only your best LSAT score can keep you from the waterfall.  Even that won’t be enough.  Simply because there will be more people with comparable LSAT scores and GPAs vying for the same number of law school seats, you will also need a stronger overall application package than you needed last year to hold the same admission ground.

Two types of applicants won’t be hurt by the stiffer competition.  The first is people of exceptional native ability with outstanding pre-law advisors.  The second will be those who dedicate the time, effort and, yes, money, to achieving their highest LSAT score and best law school application and law school admission strategy.  Everyone else will ride a waterfall that is potentially very costly to future earnings and career flexibility.

Copyright 2009 Advise-In Solutions
All Rights Reserved

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on December 18, 2009.

3 Responses to “20% Increase in LSATs: Who Wins, Who Doesn’t”

  1. […] of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of enhanced career flexibility.  Then there’s the recent spike in LSAT takers, which increases the competition for top schools.  Your LSAT score converts to money and […]

  2. […] for recent graduates is down and high-quality employment is down even further.  Still, as we predicted earlier, the benefits from the increase in the applicant pool will be “disproportionately […]

  3. […] in mind the downward slope appears very sharp because of by the fact that in 2009 and 2010, applicants were at an all-time high. But the fact that the decline has continued to this […]

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