Great lawyers have that little something extra. In court, they are natural-born salespeople. They are everymen who speak to others in their own language and chameleons who personify their values. They are also teachers who possess that innate gift for making the complex simple and the conflicting logical. However, it is outside the courtroom where they truly shine. They are the partners and problem-solvers who intimately understand the motivations of clients and intricacies of operations. More than that, they are meticulous researchers and master strategists who know how to ask the right question in the right context.
Never forget, these ace lawyers were once baffled law students. Before they could stir doubts or carve out exemptions, they had to learn the law. That means slogging through reams of cases, managing impossible course loads on little sleep, confidently answering callous cold calls, and parrying with classmates in mock court. Sure, grand ambitious and intricate plans can stir the imagination of any adcom. Even so, these decision-makers aren’t measuring whether candidates will excel at Latham & Watkins or the U.S. Justice Department. No, they want to know if candidates have the intellectual horsepower and grit to avoid washing out by Christmas.
WHAT LSAT SCORES, GPAs, ACCEPTANCE RATES AND TUITION COSTS MATTER
Numbers matter in law school admissions. An LSAT score measures more than whether a student can keep pace with their classmates. It is also, for example, a gauge of whether prospective students can poke holes in arguments — and take them to their logical conclusion. Even more, scores can raise flags on more intangible factors, such as a candidate’s ability to operate under pressure and time restraints. At the same time, undergraduate GPAs reflect subject matter mastery, but also serve as a predictor of consistency and performance over time.
Outside of admissions, two other numbers stick out. The first is tuition, the sticker price for just one year of law school. On the plus side, the majority of law students receive some form of aid. At Yale Law, for example, 58.1% of 2016 entrants snagged aid packages, which ranged from $17,817-$34,667. That number is 77.4% at a second tier state program like Minnesota Law, where the median grant amount is $25,000 per year. Alas, such numbers also don’t tack on costs like room and board, books, and other living expenses, which can run $18,000-$30,000 annually. That’s on top of tuition, a $25,000-$60,000 a year investment. If those numbers bring sticker shock, it can serve as a motivator to score higher on the LSAT — or choose a different avenue altogether.
Acceptance rates are a second variable to consider. During the 2015-2016 admissions cycle, Stanford Law received 3,821 applications. However, it accepted just 409 of them. In other words, an applicant has a 1-in-10 shot of being accepted. As a result, it might pay to adopt Berkeley or UCLA as backup schools, which boast 23% and 28% acceptance rates respectively. Of course, a high acceptance rate isn’t necessarily the boon it appears on the surface. Take Washington & Lee Law, which is ranked 28th by U.S. News. It reported a 46.9% acceptance rate for the Class of 2019. A sure bet, right? The flip side, however, is that the school’s acceptance rate has risen by nearly 17% over the past four years. By the same token, its LSAT range has fallen by four points over the same period. In other words, Washington & Lee’s quality has taken a hit to an extent, making its law degree less valuable in the marketplace.
FEWER STUDENTS AND LOWER LSAT SCORES MEAN SOME CANDIDATES CAN WRITE THEIR OWN TICKETS
Fair or not, class quality is often measured by LSAT scores for incoming classes. Here, Yale and Harvard top all comers. This fall, first years arrived on campus with scores in the 170-175 range between the 25th and 75th percentile. Yale Law 1Ls averaged a 173 LSAT, edging out Harvard Law with a 172. These scores are hardly anomalies, however. In 2012, Yale first years came to New Haven with LSATs in the 170-176 range, nearly identical to Harvard Law at 170-175.
In other words, a 170 LSAT would make someone just another candidate at a Yale or a Harvard. At Duke or Northwestern, both Top 10 programs, a score would vault a candidate near the top of the pile, where LSAT scores range from 167-170 to 163-170 respectively. That translates into more potential financial aid. Why? LSAT scores account for 12.5% of the weight in U.S. News’ law school ranking, the industry gold standard. Higher LSATs can also push a law school’s ranking higher, which gives it greater credibility with employers. In turn, this drives more applications, enabling students to better cherry pick future classes.
That’s the theory that many law school adcoms operate under. In this case, this logic is accelerated by demographics. Namely, the number of first year law students in the United States has plummeted in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, falling from a 52,000 in 2010 to around 37,000 in 2016 according to Law.com. Even worse, the quality of students shuffling into America’s law schools has declined precipitously.
In June, Pepperdine Law Dean Paul Caron released a study on LSAT scores achieved by law school applicants from 2010-2017. According to his research, the percentage of applicants who scored below 150 rose by 146% during that time period. At the same time, the percentage of applicants with a score above 160 fell by 35%. In fact, the percentage of applicants with LSATs below 150 more than doubled from 14.2% to 34.9% from 2010-2017. In contrast, the percentage who scored above 160 tumbled from 45% to 26.4%.
LSAT SCORES FALLING AS GPA AVERAGES RISE
This decline in potential students — coupled with a brain drain in quality — has stirred a mad scramble for top students at law programs who can keep rankings high. Not surprisingly, the LSAT scores of incoming students slipped across the board. Look no further than the Class of 2019. Just one Top 10 law program — Duke Law — has seen its LSAT ranges improve over the past five years. This was just a slight uptick of 166-170 to 167-170. You’d be hard pressed to find much progress beyond that, aside from the the University of Minnesota (158-168 to 159-166 to) and the University of Maryland (151-164 to 154-159). Even here, increases at the bottom percentile are offset by lower scores at the top end, a one step forward and one step back proposition.