Law School Application Increase Expected by Most Admissions Officers: If You’re a Prospective Law Student, What Does It Mean?

Above the Law reported a recent survey of law school admissions officers that found that over half believed applications would climb again this year.  The headline of the press release by the survey’s conductors was deceptive: it trumpeted “Law School Applications Continue to Climb,” which was not what the data said or even purported to say.  It’s just a forecast, and we know how uncertain such forecasts are.

Nonetheless, it’s true that applications have risen each of the last two years, while opportunities for law school graduates have definitively not risen and the number of law school seats available has been virtually flat.  That means—simple supply and demand—that significant tuition increases have been possible (particularly at mid-tier schools), so that law school students, on average, are paying more money for less certain post-law school opportunities.

Advise-In is focused on individuals, not large groups, and it’s important to recognize that the squeeze doesn’t necessarily mean that any individual applicant to law school is ill-informed, overly optimistic or unrealistic.  It does imply that some percentage are.  What the tight market does mean for each person seriously considering law school is that you should take careful stock (before you drop a lot of cash or incur significant debt obligations) of the state of the law school market and certain reasonably likely states of the legal employment market during and at the end of your law school career.

There are a few core principles that prospective law school students should think about carefully.  These principles are partly independent of the tight current admissions and employment markets, although this market means that their application is more important and should be more rigorous.

1.  Be self-aware.  Know why you want to be a lawyer (or why you want to be whatever you want to accomplish after law school).  That involves not just self-awareness, of course, but also knowledge of what lawyers of the kind you’re likely to become actually do, day after day, and possibly, night after night.  This is largely independent of economic and legal employment ups and downs.  Even in the best of legal employment markets, there are a lot—a lot—of unhappy lawyers.  Maybe some are just unhappy people, but in my experience, a lot of lawyer unhappiness arises from the fact that people just didn’t know what they were getting into.  Those who knew are generally happier, more cheerful, better colleagues, and more satisfied.

I’ve talked before about a few of the things you can do—before committing to spend six figures for law school—to decrease the risk that you’ll be blindsided a few years out of law school and feel trapped in a career you now need to pursue, even if you hate it, because you’re carrying a lot of debt (here, the market does matter).  It’s too much to expect that you’ll have certain future happiness (it’s an uncertain world) but you can improve your chances.  And even though I make my living once people decide to go to law school, during free consultations with me, I not infrequently advise prospective clients that they would do well to think more carefully about their answers to the questions, “Why Law School?” and “Why Now?”

Self-awareness and awareness of the world you’re entering are the least dependent on the state of the market at any given time.  If what you want is to be a really good lawyer and counselor, well, you have to make a living, but it needn’t be a lavish one to satisfy you.  If, on the other hand, the expected monetary rewards or enhanced prestige are uppermost in your mind (neither of which are generally lavish, by the way, even though they may seem so to most students), then the market matters a lot.  In either case, it’s important to know who you are and what the legal world is like before taking the plunge.

2.  Be realistic.  There are a few things to be realistic about, ranging from the opportunities that your likely law school options can provide you (economically, geographically, and in career satisfaction), to where you are likely to finish in your law school class, and what that likely finish means for those opportunities.

The range and depth of post-law school options differ vastly among law schools.  Since law school tuitions are relatively flat, regardless of rank and future law school opportunities, you need to decide whether spending somewhere between $100,000 and $140,000 in tuition alone—and likely upwards of $200,000 when all is said and done (more if you’re giving up a current job)—you need to realistically account for cost against the rewards that a law school education at this or that law school is likely to bring for you.

That means you need to be realistic about yourself and where you’re likely to finish in your class.  A decent starting-point is to take your undergraduate or post-graduate class rank and discount that by an appropriate percentage to figure out where you’re likely to finish in your law school class.  That will give you an important data point to use to begin to figure out where you’re likely to stand after you graduate.

You will want to project your debt load (always including interest and the likely payments at different variable interest rates) after law school.  In essence, you’ll want to work out a realistic post-law school budget for the few first several years after graduation.  Done right, you’ll be able to tell, within a certain range of reliability, what your financial life will look like after law school.  And your financial future affects a lot more than just your cash in the bank; it has the potential to strain or destroy relationships and what is best about life, particularly if worse-than-expected future is a surprise.

Despite your potential debt load, you should also be clear about the “costs” of financial aid from law schools.  Financial aid is a great thing and can significantly reduce your future burdens, thereby providing you with enhanced flexibility and future opportunity.  But law schools are businesses, and they give financial aid for the simple reason that they’re trying to skim promising students away from more attractive law schools.  So, financial aid has a cost—the cost may well be worth it but you should be clear about its potential to limit your future as well.

Being realistic is more complicated than it sounds.  It involves weighing alternatives, probabilities, factors working against each other, and so on.  But it’s worth the effort when you’re making a significant investment that has risks attached to it (and it’s a lot of what you’ll do if you’re a good lawyer, in one way or another).

3.  Be conservative.  This principle may be a matter of your appetite for risk.  A lot of people going to law school, however, are, like me, a little risk-averse.  But whatever your general inclination for risk, you should be more conservative in tighter markets, since the payoff is less certain and the costs will be fixed by the time you find out for sure what the initial payoff is.

One of the most important skills a prospective law student can have (or develop) is facility with spreadsheets.  You and your advisors should run projections that are not only realistic (see principle 2) but also include reasonable best-case and reasonable worst-case scenarios.  In this market, you should give a little more weight to downside projections than upside ones.

None of these principles, by themselves or in combination, will provide a definitive answer to whether you should go to law school and, if so, which one.  But each principle should influence your decision and your tolerance for attending (and paying and being in debt for) less optimal law schools.  And a rigorous application of these principles helps reduce the risk of bad shocks at the end of the road, shocks that a lot of recent law students have had to absorb.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on September 16, 2010.

5 Responses to “Law School Application Increase Expected by Most Admissions Officers: If You’re a Prospective Law Student, What Does It Mean?”

  1. […] There are more law school applicants, and that trend is expected to continue.  That means that your LSAT score, GPA and application package have to be better now than they […]

  2. […] much effect.  After all, significant lawyer cuts in the last few years have been accompanied by rising law school applications.  In addition, Vivia Chen reports (admittedly, the survey sample was small) that most incoming law […]

  3. […] I think is pretty reliable.  Quite independent of the LSAT data, he thought that, contrary to the fall’s survey of admission directors indicating that most expected yet another increase in applications, law school applications are […]

  4. […] several sources’ belief that law school applications would decline this year (contrary to what a survey of law school admissions personnel had suggested just a month earlier).  Since then, there has been some confirming evidence of the […]

  5. […] that law school applications could be down this year, contrary to the earlier prediction of law school admissions personnel that applications would continue to rise, as they had in each of the last two years.  Earlier this […]

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