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As Law School Applicant Pool Shrinks, Student Bodies Diversify


The number people applying to law school is down - way down, about a half of what it was a decade ago. And there are a couple of interesting consequences. With less competition, it's a little easier to get into law school, and law schools are becoming more diverse. Today, we talked to St. Louis University law professor Aaron Taylor, who monitors these trends. And he started by explaining why fewer students are applying to law school.

AARON TAYLOR: It really is a reflection of the Great Recession, in many ways. There was a contraction in the legal job market, and so once students started graduating, couldn't find jobs, had excessive debt, these stories became part of media narratives and on the blogs. And it began to discourage people from applying to law school. People didn't see the same investment value in legal education as they did, say, 10, 15 years ago.

MCEVERS: At the same time, about a fifth of entering law students now are black and Latino, and that's the highest share ever. And there also seems to be a growing percentage of students whose parents never went to college. Why is that?

TAYLOR: Well, when we talk about the proportional increase in black and Latino students, it really is a direct reflection of huge decreases in the number of white students - some 9,000 fewer white students enrolled in 2015 than had enrolled in 2010, and some 1,300 fewer Asian students. And so these are proportional increases as opposed to real number or actual number increases.

MCEVERS: And so what's the upside to that?

TAYLOR: Well the upside seems, you know, from my estimation to be that you have clearer pathways for underrepresented people - blacks and Latinos principally - into the profession. There's less competition on the back end. We still have a flat legal job market, but we have far fewer law school graduates. So we're in a much better climate as it relates to graduating and getting the job.

It's important that the legal profession reflect the people whom it serves, which is everybody. And the legal profession is one of the least diverse professions. Only about 12 percent of all lawyers are people of color and therefore, the demographics we see in legal education are encouraging because, of course, that will affect the demographics of the profession in the future.

MCEVERS: Are there dangers for these students who might not have been admitted a decade ago, say?

TAYLOR: Well, the dangers really come from the risks that are involved. Legal education is more expensive than it's ever been. Again, we have a flat job market right now. And so when you merge the lower expectations of payoffs with the higher costs, it's a risk for everyone.

But it's particularly a risk for people who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds who don't have family members who can help fund their tuition - or pay their student loans, for that matter. You really get into a situation where they're taking a leap of faith. And one of my contingents is that law schools should this take into account and be more equitable in their financial aid policies.

MCEVERS: Aaron Taylor is a law professor at St. Louis University. He wrote about the trend in law school admissions for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thank you very much.

TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.