Law School Applicants: What Are They Thinking?

by Vault Education Editors | July 22, 2010

  • My Vault

Recently, two articles have caused me no small amount of confusion. Both have wonderfully self-explanatory titles, and both describe similarly paradoxical trends in law school admissions. The first, an article by the ever-controversial U.S. News & World Report, reports that "as law school tuitions climb, so does demand." The second, from National Law Journal, is entitled "Hope Drives Rise in Law School Applications" and explains how, despite the "grim job statistics in nearly every corner of the legal world, law school applications increased by 7% over last year." Huh? Shouldn't the number of law school applications vary indirectly with tuition price and directly with job availability? What is going on?

More students are applying to law school despite high tuition and low job opportunitiesMy absolute favorite part of either article is the picture that accompanies the second. Four hypothetical law school applicants--one man, three women--look out, not quite spotting the camera, in all their upright hope and promise. The words "What are they thinking?" spans the collage, bold and dead-center. It's seems a little unnecessarily mean, but I have to admit that I'm asking myself the exact same question. Aren't law school applicants supposed to be the eminently logical, reasonable type? (Since I personally have no intention to ever apply to law school, you're welcome to correct me on this one.) My understanding of law school, based on friends currently applying and family members who graduated long ago, is that it's either a glorified trade school for really smart people or a path for those whose end goal is the academic study of the law. While Google tells me that job prospects for the latter aren't actually so bad, the percentage of students pursuing this end goal can't possibly be large enough to explain these trends. And for the former subset, the job market is totally abysmal, especially brutal when you need to get a high-paying job pretty much right out of school to cover now-even-more-astronomical student loans.

The authors of these articles propose theories of their own, which range the gamut in terms of charitability towards applicants. Katy Hopkins of U.S. News focuses her story on Ann Levine, a California-based law school admissions consultant. The hypothesis offered is that applicants figure that debt is a necessary evil, and that the better the ranking of their institution (which tends to be directly proportional to the price of the degree) the more likely they are to get a high-paying job after graduation. Karen Sloan of National Law Journal is perhaps less kind. Her first source suggests that applicants are generally ignorant of the state of affairs and the fact that, as professor Brian Tamanaha of the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law puts it, "People could be thinking, 'Well, in a few years things will change.' I think we're seeing a structural change in the industry. Even if things do come back, it won't be to the same degree we saw just a few years ago." Yet, others she cites say that, in fact, increased applications during a recession is a pretty normal, well-documented trend that has actually served applicants relatively well in the past. Many law school deans also point out that today's applicants are more savvy than those of a few years ago, shopping around to get the biggest career bang for their many, many bucks.

At the end, Sloan actually tells us what each of the pictured applicants are thinking. "I know what I'm getting into" and "I'm hoping for the best" seem to be the two general currents, both appropriately vaguely and cautiously optimistic. The implication: each applicant understands they may be making a poor decision, but is making it anyway. I have to admit, originally I had intended to write an article about who should apply to law school, but the fact is, there is no absolutely correct applicant profile--meaning there's no one type of prospective student who should definitely apply right now as opposed to later or not at all. All I can say is this: know what you're getting into; and hope for the best.

--Written by Madison Priest

Filed Under: Education

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