Law schools have seen significant increases in LSAT takers and law school applications over the past admissions cycle, which has prompted many to question the impact — if any — the 2016 presidential election has had on the law education and professional landscape, and if this blossoming job market for law school grads will last.
From 2010 to 2017, law schools saw a Juris Doctor student enrollment decrease of 25.3 percent with only 110,183 students enrolled in 2017 — the lowest it’s been in over 40 years.
Data from the American Bar Association showed that as of 2018, enrollment is up 1.2 percent since 2017 at 111,561 students.
The Law School Admission Council reported that the number of law school applications submitted in the 2018-19 admissions cycle was nearly 11 percent higher than it was around the same time in the 2017-18 cycle.
Since 2016, the number of University of Wisconsin Law School applicants has increased by 306 students, while enrollment went up by 126 students.
With law school numbers on the rise, people are wondering if the “Trump bump” is real. Kaplan Test Prep released data in February that may help substantiate that claim.
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Kaplan’s 2018 law school admissions officers survey of 121 law schools revealed 87 percent report that the current political climate in the U.S. was a significant factor in this past cycle’s application increase. Of that percentage, 30 percent described it as a “very significant” factor.
A separate Kaplan survey of pre-law students revealed that 45 percent said the current political climate impacted their decision to apply to law school, which is a marked increase from the 32 percent who answered this way in a Kaplan survey released last year.
Hundreds of law schools were on the brink of closing after financial problems that began in 2008, and many were admitting students that were not qualified to keep numbers up and stay in business. Several law schools were even sued over false post-graduation employment statistics during this time in order to bump enrollment.
Donald Downs, emeritus professor of political science at UW and former director of UW’s legal studies program and its Center for the Study of Law, Society, and Justice, said this increase in applicants will bring in more qualified law school students because of increased admissions competition.
“[Law schools] were dipping down really deep into the pool [of applicants], and that was a disservice to the students they admitted because those students didn’t do well and couldn’t get good jobs,” Downs said. “Then these students come out and they have huge debts and no job to pay for it.”
At UW, the median LSAT score went up by one point in the past year — meaning more qualified students are being enrolled, according to statistics from the Law School Admission Council.
But some worry that an enrollment jump could have negative impacts if three years from now the job market doesn’t rise with the graduation rates, which could end with more law school grads looking for a limited number of jobs.
The most recent data from the National Association for Law Placement showed that the overall employment rate for the class of 2017 was 88.6 percent, which was a slight increase from 87.5 percent the previous year.
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Downs said in today’s society, with the rise of the internet, TV and the general influx of information and news, students’ access to politics has increased. He said the current political tensions tend to draw students toward going into careers that address social, political and economic issues.
“There are also a lot of groups now influencing campus politics on both the left and the right,” Downs said. “So students are being incentivized to get involved in politics in new ways.”
Overall, 57 percent of those surveyed in Kaplan’s pre-law student survey said they plan to use their law degree to advocate for political or public policy issues they care about.
Kaplan Test Prep’s director of pre-law programs Anthony Coloca cautioned that while politics should continue to be an inspiration for students, they should keep in mind that a political issue they have interest in may change in five to ten years, but they will probably have a career in law for forty or more years.
“Politics change all the time,” Coloca said. “When we are advising students, there are lots of reasons to go to law school but the primary reason should be because you want to practice law. Caring about politics alone is generally not strong enough reason to attend law school because politics change quickly.”
Downs, who has taught several law-related classes including courses on criminal justice and the First Amendment said many students took his classes and got excited about the law and law school.
But when they go to law school and study the nuts and bolts of it, many students end up disappointed or unfulfilled with law school, Downs said. He used to tell his students that even though they might find topics such as free speech or social issues interesting, they need to be prepared that it is not necessarily going to be the same in the real world of practicing law.
The UW Law School and others have student organizations where students have the opportunity to get involved in areas of law that they are most interested in, such as the Innocence Project, which Downs said can make law school more exciting and fulfilling for students.
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Downs is not surprised about this influx of law school applications.
He said he saw the same phenomenon occur in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he attended college — one of the most tumultuous and polarized decades for American politics, marked by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and antiwar protests.
From 1965-75, total JD enrollment jumped from 55,510 to 105,708, according to the American Bar Association.
“Many people were attending grad school to study politics as well as law school then too in hopes to make a change to the laws,” Downs said.
Downs believes that after three or four years of this upward trend, things will start to change.
With at least two more years of the Trump presidency to go, we may see more enrollment and application fluctuations, Downs said.