Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy: An Empirical Study

64 Pages Posted: 17 Oct 2018 Last revised: 6 Apr 2019

See all articles by Bernard A. Burk

Bernard A. Burk


Jerome M. Organ

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota)

Emma Rasiel

Duke University - Department of Economics

Date Written: September 26, 2018


Many casual observers of the American legal academy are aware of the substantial falloff in both the number and the conventional qualifications of applicants to law school that began after 2010. But few appreciate how widespread and serious its effects have been. For the vast majority of law schools, those effects have been somewhere between significant and devastating.

From academic years 2010–11 through 2016–17, the number of unique applicants to accredited law schools fell 36 percent, and the number of applications fell 44 percent, while students with the best conventional qualifications disproportionately stayed away. The effects on the academy have been profound, and sectors of the academy distinguished by their relative overall reputation for quality have reacted differently. Beyond the strongest law schools, many shrank their entering classes by between a third and a half, and dropped 15 LSAT percentiles at the median. We estimate that aggregate annual tuition revenue for all accredited American law schools fell over $1.5 billion from its inflation-adjusted peak in 2011–12.

Generally we found, as might be expected, that the weaker a law school’s relative reputation for overall quality (“Reputation”), the more difficulty it had attracting students with the credentials it sought, so that as Reputation decreased, entering-class credentials (“Profile”), entering-class Size, and average tuition actually paid (“Net Tuition”) also decreased. But this general and unsurprising finding came with some surprising variations and exceptions. These results lead to four observations with important implications for the legal academy:

First, Reputationally Stronger law schools generally chose to preserve entering-class Profile, even when they had to shrink class Size or discount tuition to do so. This strategic drive to keep Profile up at the expense of Size meant thousands of viable candidates remained available to other law schools, effectively preventing the closing of as many as twenty Reputationally Weaker schools.

Second, by shrinking class Size and reducing Net Tuition to keep up their entering-class Profile, many law schools sacrificed millions of dollars of Tuition Revenue. As a practical matter, then, law schools “invested” in Profile rather than in expanding their faculties, their facilities, or their access to clinical and experiential education. We encourage discussion of the implications of this investment choice.

Third, some Reputationally Weaker law schools perversely were able to maintain or raise their average Net Tuition, while many law schools with stronger Reputations found themselves forced to reduce average Net Tuition more aggressively. Because discounts at any specific law school, and more generally across all law schools, tend to flow to stronger students, the students with the least promising prospects for obtaining or making any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them. These inequalities expanded significantly after 2010.

Fourth and finally, because both Tuition Revenue and Profile decreased at many law schools, the distance between student needs and school resources has widened—millions of dollars in forgone Tuition Revenue are unavailable to meet the needs of students who at many law schools are significantly less prepared and qualified than their predecessors. The decreases in Bar Examination performance nationwide from 2014 to 2016 are a likely consequence of this growing incongruity.

Keywords: Education, Law Schools, Legal Education, Educational Markets, Empirical Studies, School Choice, Financial Aid, Tuition, Professional School

Suggested Citation

Burk, Bernard A. and Organ, Jerome M. and Rasiel, Emma, Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy: An Empirical Study (September 26, 2018). 19 Nev. L.J. 583 (2019), Economic Research Initiatives at Duke (ERID) Working Paper, U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 18-24, Available at SSRN:

Jerome M. Organ

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States

Emma Rasiel

Duke University - Department of Economics ( email )

213 Social Sciences Building
Box 90097
Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States

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