This Saturday, thousands of prospective law students will take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the exam required of most American law schools. Contrary to recent trends, the number of individuals taking the LSAT is going up. Indeed, according to one count, the number of December 2nd test takers has gone up 20 percent over just last year’s administration around this time. Increases in the June 2017 and September 2017 offering of the test confirm this trend. What is driving this increase, after a post-recession lull in the earlier part of this decade? One possible explanation is that the test can now be taken as many times as a student wants to take it and only his or her best score will count towards an application to law school. But can that account for this rise, and the fact the test is already going to be administered six times instead of four next year? Is there something else going on? Could there be, as some suggest, a “Trump Bump”?
Law schools across the country have faced a significant drop in enrollment in recent years after a sustained period of growth. The Great Recession resulted in diminished employment opportunities for graduates of law schools who were also saddled with the significant debt incurred earning a law degree. Many prospective students would ultimately choose career paths other than the law once they saw a potentially troubling combination of high debt and low job prospects on their horizon. Perhaps this is starting to change, however.
Could the increase in individuals enrolling to take the LSAT, and the fact that more law schools are saying they will accept the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission (which means the jump in LSAT takers may actually represent just a portion of the total pool of students who may apply to law school this year), mean that law schools have turned the proverbial corner, to some extent at least, due to the election of Donald Trump? Could the high profile response of lawyers and law students to challenge the Trump Travel Ban and other efforts have renewed interest, on both the Right and the Left, in attending law school?
A recent piece in the Chicago Tribune seems to suggest that tomorrow’s law students may be driven by a desire to go to law school, whether because they wish to challenge Trump’s policies or support them. That report quoted Kellye Testy, head of the Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT exam, as saying the following: “People against Trump are saying, ‘I want to be the judge that stood up to him.’ People for Trump are saying, ‘I could’ve won that case for him’…Young people were saying, ‘Wow, the lawyers are really stepping up to talk back to power and help guard the rule of law and democracy.’ The positive role of a lawyer was made visible in a way that it’s often not.”
The article goes on to quote several prospective law students, from across the political spectrum, who seem interested in law school, driven, despite their political differences, by a desire to be a part of what is happening in the world. While this may be encouraging for those of us, like myself, who both work in legal education and believe a robust legal profession is necessary for a functioning democracy, one has to ask whether there will be jobs waiting for these eager graduates when they leave law school. Will an increase in students attending law school mean simply that the law graduate employment rate, which has been stabilizing in recent years, if not increasing, drop again? For those interested in supporting Trump’s policies, there should be ample opportunities for them to do so: in firms representing private companies, in organizations that will lobby for special treatment in the tax code or for lighter regulations, in the federal government. Trump might even make some of them judges. But what about those who might stand in opposition, who see themselves in the Resistance with a capital “R”? That’s where critical interventions are needed.
We have long known that members of low- and middle-income communities often face their legal problems without a lawyer, often because they cannot afford one or do not know how to access one. Indeed, roughly eighty percent of low-income families and half of those in the middle income bracket go without a lawyer when they have a legal issue that might threaten their home or their employment, so the need for lawyers is apparent. Recent innovations, like New York City’s recognition of a right to a lawyer in eviction proceedings for low-income and working poor tenants, mean that there should be some new jobs out there for lawyers interested in promoting social justice. Will other jurisdictions follow suit? Will state and local governments step up funding for other areas of law where rising economic inequality, which will only become worse if the Republican tax plan goes through, threatens to hollow out the middle class and undermine the basic economic infrastructure of the nation?
The private bar is also one of the main funders of legal services for low-income communities through the donations of millions of dollars in support for such efforts. Its members have recently stepped up their efforts to provide pro bono assistance as well in many places where non-profits do not have the resources to do so. Can lawyers from private firms continue to offer support, with both funding and volunteer efforts, as many did in the airports following the issuance of the Travel Ban?
Private foundations and donors also have supported and continue to support efforts to provide free legal assistance to those who cannot afford it. Will the plight of immigrants facing deportation under harsher immigration policies, or low-wage workers facing wage theft and unsafe working conditions, continue to elicit private foundation support?
With all of these questions, only time will tell.
All indications are that the Trump Administration could be shaping up to be a full employment plan for lawyers, on both sides of the aisle. The private bar, state and local governments, and private charities can offer support for organizations providing free legal assistance to those who need it in Trump’s America and help satisfy the hunger on the part of prospective law students to work for social justice. And they may be the only hope for doing so; it should come as no surprise that funding to fight for social justice in opposition to Trump Administration policies is not going to come from the federal government.
The apparent renewed desire to attend law school comes at a propitious time. Over the last few years, the consensus seemed be that the world did not need more lawyers; soon, there simply may not be enough to go around.