Good news for aspiring lawyers: It's getting easier to get into law school, and the legal job market is showing some signs of improvement. The bad news: Many experts worry that unqualified entrants will have little chance to pass the bar exam and will be saddled with unaffordable levels of debt.
According to an analysis by Jerome Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, 33 percent of law school entrants had median LSAT scores of 160 or higher in 2013, compared with 40.8 percent in 2010 (the LSAT is scored on a scale between 120 and 180). Conversely, first-year students with scores of 149 or lower rose from 14.2 percent to 22.5 percent.
"Not all law schools are lowering admission standards," wrote Wendy Margolis of the Law School Admissions Council in an email. "If some of them are, you would need to ask them about their individual reasons. Actually, enrollment did not start to really decline until after the recovery began. There was a lag. We really have no way of knowing what will happen in the future."
In an interview, Organ said his colleagues at other schools have noticed a decline in the quality of their students, though he hasn't noticed it at his university, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"It is a refrain that I hear with some frequency," he said. "The quality of students isn't what it was two or three years ago."
About 30,000 to 38,000 people entered the legal job market annually between 1982 and 2012, according to Organ's analysis. Another 7,000 to 18,000 departed the legal job market during that same period. The numbers of departures is expected to increase in coming years, while entrants are forecast to drop.
Backing up Organ's view is Loyola University Professor Theodore Seto, who told CBS MoneyWatch that new graduates will still have to compete against recently minted JDs for jobs, even as fewer new lawyers enter the market in coming years. He noted that rates of Loyola graduates finding employment 10 months after graduation has increased by more than 10 percentage points over the past two years.
"Yes, I still believe that demand will begin to outstrip supply soon," he said in an email. "When and how this will be evidenced is less clear. There is a large overhang of unemployed law graduates looking for jobs. Whether employers will hire them over 2015 grads is hard to predict."
Data released last month from the American Bar Association showed that just under 120,000 students were enrolled in the 204 ABA-approved law schools. That's the lowest since 1987, when the ABA had 175 certified schools.
ABA standards require law schools to admit students that they believe can complete their programs and become members of the bar.
"There are no specific standards for graduation rates," said Barry Courier, the ABA's managing director of accreditation and legal education, adding that the standards for passing the bar vary by state. The ABA has never yanked the accreditation of any law school and last put a school on probation in the earlier part of the decade.
In recent years, some law schools have cut the number of people they admit and the ranks of faculty that teach them. Given the economics, experts expect some of the nation's law schools to close and the quality of students to keep slipping.
On average, students graduating from public law schools are $84,600 in the red, while freshly minted JDs from private schools wind up owing about $122,000. Graduates of for-profit institutions, such as the schools owned by private equity-backed InfiLaw, are in even worse shape, owing $204,000 within six months of graduation, according to a recent article in The Atlantic.
The story notes that one-quarter of graduates from the company's schools were unemployed nine months after graduation. The number of employed is also exaggerated because they include people working in temporary jobs created by the schools, the magazine says.
InfiLaw denies the allegations and notes that its mission is to educate minority students who have been underrepresented in the legal profession for decades. The company argues that its students pass the bar at a higher rate than other minority students with similar LSAT scores. It also described its 1.6 percent student loan default rate as being "among the lowest in higher education."
Still, while it's now easier to get into law school than it has been, the chances of ultimately succeeding as practicing lawyers for those who wouldn't have made the cut earlier are only shrinking.