Posted on November 29, 2013

‘White Flight’ Hits Nation’s Law Schools

Matt Leichter, American Lawyer, November 27, 2013

As the number of applicants to law school continues to dwindle, some writers have begun pondering the demographic challenges facing law schools. Attorney Keith Lee and University of Saint Thomas School of law professor Jerry Organ recently wrote articles highlighting the decline in graduates from elite, “feeder” universities applying to law school. At the same time, recent law school applicants tend to have lower LSAT scores than their predecessors. Both of these observations fit into a developing narrative that highly intelligent and affluent college graduates are forgoing law school.

A different look at the data reveals a more profound trend: Most of the 8,651-student net decline in law school enrollments between 2010 and 2012 is attributable to white male law students going unreplaced. White women account for another big chunk of the decline. In fact, of the 7,776 fewer 1Ls entering law school over that two-year period, 6,528 (84 percent) fit into the “White/Caucasian” ethnic category. For a profession sensitive about a dearth of women and minorities, the idea that white men — and, to a lesser degree, white women — are losing interest in law school might be welcomed as a sign that the legal profession is poised to become more ethnically diverse. But analysis of Official Guide law school demographics data shows that any hopes that the law school applicant crunch will help make that happen are misplaced.

Here’s a look at the decline in law school enrollment broken down by gender and ethnicity. (I have excluded Puerto Rico’s three law schools throughout this article.)


The enrollment decrease is actually even more ethnically lopsided considering that students whose ethnicity is “unknown” are usually white. That is, the higher a law school’s percentage of unknown ethnicity students, the smaller its proportion of white students, and vice versa. In one glaring example, it’s highly doubtful that Cornell Law School’s sudden, one-year surge in law students of unknown ethnicity from 0 to 39 percent in 2012 can be explained by a flood of minorities when the percentage of white students collapsed from 55 to 16 percent. (For statisticians, in 2012 the correlation coefficient for the percentage of unknown ethnicity students and other ethnicities was -0.36 for white students; black students came in at a distant second at -0.15.)

Furthermore, the apparent growth within the minority student category over these two years has not been distributed evenly. The number of applicants among people identifying themselves as Asian is down, while the number of Hispanic applicants and those who identify themselves as “two or more races” are up.

Unlike total enrollments, the total number of minority first-year students has declined between 2010 and 2012. Total minority enrollments may drop in 2013 or 2014 as a result.

These changes in law school demographics raise an obvious question for those interested in the profession’s diversity: Which law schools account for the drop in white students? Answer: Not the most popular ones.

Using the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings — not because they measure prestige precisely but because they are widely known — it’s clear that the bulk of the 6,528-person decline in white 1Ls occurred at lower-ranked schools. The 101 schools with a ranking of 100 or less accounted for only 38 percent of the decrease, while the top 50 were only responsible for 17 percent, and the famed top 14 just 3 percent. The 48 remaining schools, along with the rank-not-published University of La Verne, accounted for 41 percent of the lost white 1Ls.


Another way to explore the change in law schools’ diversity is to look at the ethnic composition of their 1L classes. In 2010, the median law school’s entering class was 71 percent white. Two years later it dropped three percentage points to 68 percent. Here is a table showing the average percentage-point change in law schools’ ethnic compositions. Notably, when white 1Ls and unknown ethnicity 1Ls are added together to cancel out illusory movements in white 1Ls as at Cornell, it appears that the most prestigious law schools are enrolling slightly higher proportions of white students while less prestigious schools are becoming much more diverse.

T-14 -0.1% 0.8% -1.8%
T-50 0.3% 0.0% -0.9%
51-100 -1.3% -0.8% -0.4%
>100 -1.9% -2.7% 2.4%
NP + La Verne -6.3% -7.2% 6.8%

It isn’t evident whether enrollments at individual law schools are shrinking by choice or because of a fall-off in applicants. {snip}

It’s clear that the most prestigious law schools are about as ethnically diverse as they ever were. The only difference is that they are more willing to admit applicants with slightly lower test scores, which in practical terms at most schools means white applicants because they tend to do better on the LSAT due to socioeconomic factors.


And just where are white college graduates fleeing to? Maybe the record number of applications to medical schools this year has something to do with it.