Here’s Why It Just Got Easier to Apply to Harvard Law

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Shahien Nasiripour, Bloomberg News

Demand for American law school degrees has fallen off a cliff. Harvard Law School, which counts more than half of the current U.S. Supreme Court and Barack Obama as alumni, is no exception. The school’s Wednesday announcement that it will begin to accept the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) over the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) from applicants starting this autumn appears to be a bet that Chinese engineers and Indian scientists can help reverse a double-digit decline in applications.

Harvard said it made the decision after determining that its students’ GRE scores were an “equally valid predictor” of first-year grades as the LSAT. Experts said that Harvard’s weight in the legal world means it’s likely that other schools, too, will soon accept the GRE.

Harvard’s decision reflects an unfortunate reality confronting the legal profession: Fewer Americans want to become lawyers; the ones that do are entering school with worse credentials than students before them; and the people and organizations that end up employing lawyers are paying them less.

The number of annual LSAT takers in the U.S., a reliable proxy for law school applications, has fallen 35 percent over the past five years, Law School Admission Council data show. Applications to Harvard Law alone are down 14 percent.

Schools have responded by lowering their standards and admitting more students. At the five highest-ranked schools, admission offers are up 7 percent, the data indicate. Nationally, according to data collected by Kyle McEntee, the executive director of Law School Transparency, about 80 percent of applicants are admitted to at least one law school, up from about 56 percent a dozen years ago.

High tuition — and the resulting six-figure debt loads that pile up — has made students think twice about pursuing legal education, said McEntee. At those same five schools, for example, fewer admitted students enrolled this year than five years earlier. Federal data show that the typical lawyer’s wages has fallen 3.5 percent over the last decade, after adjusting for inflation.

Allowing prospective students to submit GRE scores “is just a way for schools to expand the number of qualified students they can admit,” McEntee said. Indeed, while demand for the LSAT has dropped considerably, the number of general GRE exams taken has jumped 38 percent since 2006, to more than 703,000 worldwide, according to Educational Testing Service, the exam’s administrator. India and China, with more than 143,000 test takers between them, were responsible for nearly twice as many GRE takers last year as the rest of the world combined, after excluding the U.S.

College graduates debating whether to pursue a legal education or a master’s program in another field may be enticed to apply for law school, since they’d only have to take one exam, McEntee added. The fact that the GRE can be taken almost any day, whereas the LSAT is offered only four times a year, should help, too.

Harvard Law joins the University of Arizona’s law school as one of just two in the country that accept the GRE. The announcement comes as the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, is set to debate this weekend whether all law schools can allow aspiring applications to submit results from exams other than the LSAT.

Martha Minow, Harvard Law’s dean, said her school wants to reach more prospective students from abroad. She also wants more students with science, technology, and engineering backgrounds, she added, because of society’s larger needs for those kinds of expertise. In China, 55 percent of GRE takers said they intended to enroll in physical sciences, engineering, or life-science programs. Among test takers in India, that figure was 67 percent. In deciding to accept the GRE, Harvard may expect its future crop of successful alumni may be more likely to come from India and China than the U.S.

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