The Declining Percentage of Women Going to Law School: An Undergraduate Woman’s Perspective on a Disturbing Phenomenon (Part Two: The Decline in Women’s Law School Admission Rates)

   –by Devon Lawrence

In my last post, I discussed one reason why, over the last decade, the percentage of women in law school has declined.  Although (until this year) the number of women applicants has increased, the number of men applicants has increased much more sharply.  The most recent year is an exception, but it doesn’t alter the long-term trend very much.  There are likely a plethora of economic, societal, and individual reasons that have contributed to this perplexing trend that would require an intensive research project to uncover.  I haven’t done such intensive research yet and I can’t talk definitively about all women, but I can talk about myself and my perceptions. For me, lower average earnings and the deficiency of female lawyers in powerful positions of influence combined with the relative inflexibility and unpredictability of legal work schedules are among the things that I will need to think about carefully before sending in my own applications.  

But all of this doesn’t explain LSAC’s data on admissions.  It makes sense that fewer women should be admitted to law school as part of a smaller pool of applicants, but this does not account for the entire gap.  The percentage of female admits has been steadily decreasing for the past decade, from 48.91% in 2000 to 45.71% in 2010.  This does not match up percentage-wise to the decrease in female applications (49.43% to 47.24%).  On average, in the past decade, the admission rate for women has been 4.12 percentage points lower than for men; this has nothing to do with the size of the applicant pool, but rather seems to have implications as to the “quality” of the applicants.  This difference in admission rate may partly account for the disparity between top 10 enrollments and overall enrollment.  In autumn 2009, women composed 47.06% of enrollees at law schools nationwide.  Taking the average enrollment percentages from the top 10 schools in the Catalyst study shows us that only 45.76% were women.

Those data are pretty shocking—and it’s surprising that it’s gotten very little attention from the legal press.  What could account for the data? 

There is the possibility that better-qualified women have found equivalent or better career opportunities in the last decade in greater numbers than equally qualified men; however, it’s hard to find much hard evidence for that, and it seems unlikely.  Then there is the possibility that applications from women are, on average, not as strong as applications from men.  Do men have higher GPAs? No, on average, women have higher GPAs than men.  Could male applicants have more extensive or desirable work histories, better personal statements or recommendation letters?  Maybe, but again, it’s hard to come up with a convincing explanation for why any of that would be true.  More important, even if those differences did exist, why have they become more pronounced over the last 10 years? 

What about the LSAT?  Men have traditionally scored somewhat better on the LSAT.  Could it be more than coincidence that the growing gap between male/female admission rates was, for a large part, tracked closely by a growing gap between the LSAT scores of men and women?  Using data from the LSAC from the years 2001-2006, Colleen Honigsberg shows that while the mean male LSAT score increased from 152.7 to 154, the mean female LSAT score barely increased at all—151.1 to 151.5. 

It’s also true that average female scores on the SAT don’t quite match up to average male scores.  On critical reading (a big deal on the LSAT), women are about 5 points behind men; on math (not a big deal on the LSAT), the gap is much wider at about 34 points behind men.  It is only in writing that women excel by about 10 points. 

Kyle has made (and asked that I make) the point here that the LSAT isn’t a “standardized test” in the way we usually mean, and that thinking of the LSAT as a sort of super-SAT is damaging to LSAT takers.  Point taken, but I’m saying something a little different.  The LSAT, Kyle will agree, isn’t a “specialist” test—it doesn’t require specific outside knowledge (that’s why it’s not a standardized test like the SAT).  And it’s not an intelligence test for anyone, man or woman.  So, why do women score lower and, more important, why has the gap between men and women increased even though the LSAT hasn’t changed at all in the last decade

That suggests to me that women aren’t as equally advantaged by standardized test prep.  Perhaps the programs that are widely available are somehow male-centric and tailored programs that give optimal prep for women are not widely available.  That’s a depressing possibility.  It would mean that, unless the market changes and/or women become more selective about their LSAT prep programs, the trends are not likely to change very much. 

Does this mean that women are on average not as fit to practice law as men?  In my strong opinion, the answer is no.  But law schools maintain or improve their rankings largely on the basis of LSAT scores, and it’s hard to believe it’s accidental that an increasing proportion of male admissions is unrelated to a growing gap in LSAT scores.  

Fewer applications and a lower admission rate have both contributed to the ever-growing gap in percent of female law school admits.  The gap was a 1.77 difference in percentage points in 2000 and has grown to 8.2 percentage points by 2010.  This year’s data may show a slight reversal of that trend but it will be slight and it may not continue in the future.  Fewer female admits translates to fewer female enrollees.   Women are paid less, occupy less prestigious positions and are more likely to leave legal work after short careers.  All of these factors are indicators to college-aged women like me that maybe law isn’t the best future career decision.  I see impediments at virtually every point in the process—from the best LSAT preparation programs for women to their eventual careers in law.  These are the factors that are going to have to change in order for more women to perceive law as a potential future. 

The problem is so multifaceted, so I’ll try to be optimistic.  As an undergraduate woman considering a career in law, it means that all I can do is to try to confront one obstacle at a time.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on June 23, 2011.

One Response to “The Declining Percentage of Women Going to Law School: An Undergraduate Woman’s Perspective on a Disturbing Phenomenon (Part Two: The Decline in Women’s Law School Admission Rates)”

  1. […] although I’ve had guest bloggers relate to the issue in the past, I’m not so concerned here with speculating as to why, on […]

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