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The Supposed Law School “Brain Drain”

There’s been some freaking out online about law school applications. In other news, they’re airing reality TV shows on Bravo. This time, the freak out is over the quality of law school applicants. Even as law school applications rebounded in 2017, the number of applicants from “top” undergraduate schools (literally just the Ivies plus Chicago, Duke, and Stanford) dropped. That number has dropped a lot since 2008.

What should you make of this? Uh, not much. It would be a big mistake to conclude that students from top schools have some kind of special knowledge about whether law school is the place to be. Any one person’s decision whether to go to law school depends on many factors. Some can be quantified. For example, people might compare the salaries they’d expect as a lawyer to what they’d expect on an alternative career path. Others are more about feelings: how people see themselves, what their friends are doing, what choices their families approve of, what’s trendy…

Only you can weigh these factors for you. I’m not going to try to sell you on law school. There are still lots of people graduating law school with debt that far exceeds their job prospects. There are also lots of people graduating law school and getting good jobs. You’re the one who can assess what your other options are and how law school compares. Do your research, check out the employment prospects for the law schools you’re considering, and make a careful decision.

In other words, you shouldn’t read this trend as an indication of what the “smart” kids are doing. First of all, let’s not equate going to one of these schools with intelligence. I went to one of them, and there were plenty of smart people but also plenty of dullards. In some cases, you can even buy your way in.

Even to the extent that smart students at the top schools are making a rational decision, that decision depends as much on their other options as it does on how law school looks. In other words, if someone chooses not to go to law school, it doesn’t mean that law school looks bad to her (though it might), just that another option (tech? finance? farming cannabis?) looks better.

Furthermore, whatever the students at these top schools are doing, the number of strong applicants is on its way up. I don’t have the school-by-school breakdown for 2018, but as we covered last month, the number of applicants with LSAT scores above 160 is up. Way up.

In sum, if you hear chatter about this drop in “top” applicants to law school, ignore it. There’s no reason it’s a trend you should follow. Make your own decision. You also shouldn’t assume that this trend means you’re facing less competition for spots at top law schools. Law schools care much more about your LSAT score than about where you went to college, and judged by the former metric the competition is getting a lot stiffer.