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Fewer LSATs show reduced undergrad interest in law

Marilyn Odendahl
December 4, 2013
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The continued drop in the number of people taking the LSAT has brought more worries about the future of law schools; however, many would-be applicants may just be waiting for the economy to improve before they try for admission.

In the past, Frank Rowen, assistant director of the career center at Ball State University, noticed undergraduates in any kind of major who felt they were good at logic and writing would consider attending law school. This was especially true for those students who were unsure of what they wanted to do after they got their bachelor’s degree.

The downturn in the economy, along with the stories of law school graduates not finding jobs and struggling under crushing student loan debt, have made undergraduates more hesitant, Rowen said. But they are not necessarily giving up on the idea of someday going to law school or working in the legal field.

While some students are passionate and committed to studying the law, Rowen said others are opting to get a job after graduation, gain a little real-world experience, then re-evaluate whether a law degree is something they truly want.

The number of LSATs administered is a gauge many law schools rely on as an indicator of how big the applicant pool will be. After a lengthy review, the American Bar Association decided earlier this year to retain the requirement for admissions testing. The association kept the standard that accredited law schools must select students from the pool of applicants who have taken an admissions test.

Since the most popular test is the LSAT, the number of individuals taking the exam provides the best indicator of the level of interest in law as a career.

According to the number of tests given, the interest has been falling in recent years.

Individuals taking the LSAT surged during the first part of the Great Recession, reaching a record 171,514 for the 2009-2010 test year. The number of tests administered has dropped since 2010 and fell to 112,515 in 2012-2013. This is lowest total of administered tests since 2000-2001 when 109,030 LSATs were given.

For Carlton Waterhouse, professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, the current situation reminds him of when he applied to law school. He enrolled in the early 1980s when the country was going through another crippling recession.

Waterhouse’s mother knew people with law degrees who could not find jobs as lawyers, and she discouraged her son from becoming an attorney. He now sees that same anxiety in his law students with some, responding to the economy and criticism of legal education, second guessing their decision to become lawyers.

Just as the market recovered in the 1980s, Waterhouse said the current economy will cycle upward and the law jobs will return. His confidence is based on his view that law is very jurisdictional and many of the things a lawyer does cannot be outsourced.

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, Waterhouse led the effort to build a partnership between IU McKinney and Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy in Indianapolis. Law school faculty members teach the youngsters about various aspects of the law, and law school students serve as mentors and tutors.

Waterhouse said the partnership will expose the high school students to the law and the career opportunities and possibly get them thinking about earning a J.D. Although many of the Shortridge pupils would be the first in their families to attend college, the McKinney professor is not discouraged by the prospect that to become lawyers, these students will have to complete four years of college followed by three years of law school.

“I think when you can ignite in a person a curiosity and interest and appreciation of education, then there are a lot of opportunities that come out of that,” Waterhouse said. “I think if we can ignite the spark in many of these students, we can be really impressed with the result.”

Rowen is seeing an interest in the law with the students he counsels at Ball State. The glamour of being a trial lawyer like those depicted on television has faded, but students in the university’s legal studies program want a career in the legal field even if they cannot go to law school.

Working with the students who are thinking about law school, Rowen does not blatantly tell them not to go.

lsat“We’re definitely not telling students, ‘No law school for you,’” Rowen said. “It’s not our job to tell the students what to do. Our job is to help them understand the options and possibilities.”

He explains to the undergraduates how law school classes are different in rigor and design than their current college courses. Also, he helps the students explore all the things an attorney can do and the different ways a law degree can be used.

Along with the drop in individuals taking the LSAT, some in legal education are concerned about data that shows a decline in the number of applications from students at the elite universities and with the highest LSAT scores.

Waterhouse speculated the undergraduates who have strong academic records are not applying to law school because they have options elsewhere. Previously, these students chose to become attorneys because it was the most lucrative profession even though they may not have had any passion for the law. Now, with the change in the economy, some of these high achievers are deciding to pursue a medical degree or an MBA.

The shift in attitudes about law school among all undergraduates mirrors an earlier shift in college degrees in general, Rowen said. Previously, students could arrive on campus, complete a bachelor’s degree and then figure out where they wanted to work. A college degree practically guaranteed a job.

Today, with that guarantee gone, students have to be more thoughtful about preparing themselves for a career after graduation. Likewise, undergraduates who truly want to be attorneys are preparing themselves early for the academic challenges of law schools.

Typically by the sophomore year, Rowen’s students start planning for law school. Those who do not consider law school until their senior year are opting to wait awhile before applying.•

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