'White Flight' Hits Nation's Law Schools

, The Am Law Daily


As the number of applicants to law school continues to dwindle, some writers have begun pondering the demographic challenges facing law schools. Attorney Keith Lee and University of Saint Thomas School of law professor Jerry Organ recently wrote articles highlighting the decline in graduates from elite, "feeder" universities applying to law school. At the same time, recent law school applicants tend to have lower LSAT scores than their predecessors. Both of these observations fit into a developing narrative that highly intelligent and affluent college graduates are forgoing law school.

A different look at the data reveals a more profound trend: Most of the 8,651-student net decline in law school enrollments between 2010 and 2012 is attributable to white male law students going unreplaced. White women account for another big chunk of the decline. In fact, of the 7,776 fewer 1Ls entering law school over that two-year period, 6,528 (84 percent) fit into the "White/Caucasian" ethnic category. For a profession sensitive about a dearth of women and minorities, the idea that white men—and, to a lesser degree. white women—are losing interest in law school might be welcomed as a sign that the legal profession is poised to become more ethnically diverse. But analysis of Official Guide law school demographics data shows that any hopes that the law school applicant crunch will help make that happen are misplaced.

Here's a look at the decline in law school enrollment broken down by gender and ethnicity. (I have excluded Puerto Rico's three law schools throughout this article.)

The enrollment decrease is actually even more ethnically lopsided considering that students whose ethnicity is "unknown" are usually white. That is, the higher a law school's percentage of unknown ethnicity students, the smaller its proportion of white students, and vice versa. In one glaring example, it's highly doubtful that Cornell Law School's sudden, one-year surge in law students of unknown ethnicity from 0 to 39 percent in 2012 can be explained by a flood of minorities when the percentage of white students collapsed from 55 to 16 percent. (For statisticians, in 2012 the correlation coefficient for the percentage of unknown ethnicity students and other ethnicities was -0.36 for white students; black students came in at a distant second at -0.15.)

Furthermore, the apparent growth within the minority student category over these two years has not been distributed evenly. The number of applicants among people identifying themselves as Asian is down, while the number of Hispanic applicants and those who identify themselves as "two or more races" are up.

Unlike total enrollments, the total number of minority first-year students has declined between 2010 and 2012. Total minority enrollments may drop in 2013 or 2014 as a result.

These changes in law school demographics raise an obvious question for those interested in the profession's diversity: Which law schools account for the drop in white students? Answer: Not the most popular ones.

Using the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings—not because they measure prestige precisely but because they are widely known—it's clear that the bulk of the 6,528-person decline in white 1Ls occurred at lower-ranked schools. The 101 schools with a ranking of 100 or less accounted for only 38 percent of the decrease, while the top 50 were only responsible for 17 percent, and the famed top 14 just 3 percent. The 48 remaining schools, along with the rank-not-published University of La Verne, accounted for 41 percent of the lost white 1Ls.

A similar apportionment occurs with white male enrollments (-4,443) compared to white female enrollments (-3,828), which are presented below in table form for brevity.

T-14 2.6% 4.3%
T-50 7.0% 10.8%
51-100 14.4% 12.1%
>100 14.2% 12.1%
NP + La Verne 18.1% 11.2%
TOTAL 51.4% 44.2%

(Note: Figures don't add up to 100 percent because enrollments at two law schools that were accredited after 2010 are excluded from 2012 enrollment figures. Also, the high "total" percentages of white male and white female students are offset by gains in minority and nonresident alien enrollments.)

Another way to explore the change in law schools' diversity is to look at the ethnic composition of their 1L classes. In 2010, the median law school's entering class was 71 percent white. Two years later it dropped three percentage points to 68 percent. Here is a table showing the average percentage-point change in law schools' ethnic compositions. Notably, when white 1Ls and unknown ethnicity 1Ls are added together to cancel out illusory movements in white 1Ls as at Cornell, it appears that the most prestigious law schools are enrolling slightly higher proportions of white students while less prestigious schools are becoming much more diverse.

T-14 -0.1% 0.8% -1.8%
T-50 0.3% 0.0% -0.9%
51-100 -1.3% -0.8% -0.4%
>100 -1.9% -2.7% 2.4%
NP + La Verne -6.3% -7.2% 6.8%

It isn't evident whether enrollments at individual law schools are shrinking by choice or because of a fall-off in applicants. It has been well documented that some schools have resisted the temptation to reduce their admission standards in favor of maintaining the perceived quality of their student bodies, while others have shifted toward an open enrollment policy out of necessity. That said, thus far a handful of schools account for a substantial chunk of the smaller 1L class between 2010 and 2012. Ten law schools lost 2,199 1Ls, 28 percent of the total.

It's clear that the most prestigious law schools are about as ethnically diverse as they ever were. The only difference is that they are more willing to admit applicants with slightly lower test scores, which in practical terms at most schools means white applicants because they tend to do better on the LSAT due to socioeconomic factors.

Though some may argue to the contrary, the decline in white law school applicants isn't something to be sanguine aboutóand not because the profession can't function without a large supply of white lawyers.

Reason number one is that few minorities benefit when prestigious law schools shrink their enrollments. Reason number two: As the data show, the biggest beneficiaries of diminished interest in law school have so far have been, ironically, white applicants with lower LSAT scores who are now being accepted to law schools that would have rejected them a few years ago. Because entry-level lawyer jobs are apportioned according to law school prestige, minorities attending less-prestigious schools are unlikely to succeed in the profession long-term. (It doesn't help that there's little evidence that demand for lawyers is growing, so even white students lucky enough to have gotten into a better law school than they would have in the past might not be that much better off after all.)

Finally, a law degree has long been considered a positional good that privileged people purchase to get ahead of everyone else. Indeed, it was created to exclude minority groups. "Law school white flight" indicates that legal education's positional value is collapsing, leaving more recent purchasers at a disadvantage and with the debt to show for it.

And just where are white college graduates fleeing to? Maybe the record number of applications to medical schools this year has something to do with it.

Matt Leichter is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He received his dual degree in law and international affairs from Marquette University. He operates The Law School Tuition Bubble, which archives, chronicles, and analyzes the deteriorating American legal education system. He will present "College Education: Certain Debt, Uncertain Income" at the Henry George School of Social Science in New York City on Friday, December 20, 2013.

What's being said

  • Andre Leonard

    The demographics of America are changing. Whites are now the minority. Though you would not realize it by observing the media (television) One quick look at the Census reveals the change.

  • Paula Marie Young

    The bubble may be bursting across all professional schools. So, some of those new med school matriculants may have made a choice that won't pay off as they anticipated. I blogged on the topic here: http://the-red-velvet-lawyer.blogspot.com/2013/11/graduate-school-bubbles-bursting-across.html

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