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Are Law Schools Foolishly Optimistic or Will Demand Rebound?

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 29, 2014 9:32 AM

I see skies of blue. And clouds of white. Optimistic law schools. Ignoring their perilous plight.

For the past few years, we've seen ever-decreasing law school applications and LSAT test administrations. Fewer and fewer undergraduates are looking to the law as the next step, largely because this is a profession largely lacking in lucrative or meaningful opportunities. For the vast majority of law graduates, you're going to end up with a middling salary working in construction defect litigation, not as Judith Clark or Dana Latham. (Look 'em up, you've got plenty of time between cover letters.)

And yet, according to a Kaplan survey released Tuesday, admissions officers have stars in their eyes. Are they right?

We're Less Screwed Than Before

The past couple of years have been dark for admissions officers: Last year, only 34 percent thought that their schools would see an increase in applications. It was a logical (and correct) thought, at least on an industry-wide level, since LSAT administrations were plummeting. (Fewer LSAT takers almost certainly means fewer law school applicants.)

Now, 46 percent are thinking rosy thoughts, believing that their school will see a bump in applications. Maybe they think it can't get any worse. Heed the advice, then, of my stepfather, who told me early and often not to worry, because it will get worse.

Or maybe they're just really special schools. Kaplan's press release quotes Robert Schwartz, dean of admissions at UCLA School of Law, who observed, "I expect we will see fewer applications to the nation's law schools for the fall 2015 entering class. Here at UCLA though, we believe that curricular innovations, like our new clinical course on the lawyer-client relationship for first-year students and our plan to double our already extensive upper division clinical course offerings, will attract a robust pool of applicants."

We'd mock him, but he's probably right -- UCLA is in or near the Top 15, depending on what side of the bed U.S. News and World Report woke up on. Recovery will come to the top schools before it does to the bottom-feeders. It's the non-ABA schools and the $50,000-a-year diploma mills that really need to worry.

Has the Bleeding Stopped?

Since 2012, when Kaplan started tracking the stat, not a single year has gone by where less than 50 percent of schools have said that they wouldn't cut class sizes. Market correction was working, especially after schools massively bloated class sizes in 2010-11 while panicked applicants tried to hide out the recession in recession-proof law. Hah!

This year? It's down to 47 percent of schools that plan on cutting class sizes.

Does that mean anything? No. You see, when application numbers dropped, some schools responded to the crisis by cutting class sizes -- the arguably correct move. Others, not wanting to slow the revenue flow, beefed up class sizes and used scholarships to balance their admissions numbers, keeping their rankings intact.

Schools declining to cut class sizes could be a sign that demand is back. But considering the state of the actual legal sector -- the Kaplan press release cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the fact that we're still 46,000 jobs below the pre-recession mark -- this is probably just schools hitting the low-water line on their revenue pools and responding in kind.

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