The following is a guest post by Jackson attorney Ken Walley. It was drafted on the heels of the recent Clarion-Ledger article extolling the virtues of a law degree that this blog covered here.

Dean Rosenbatt retired at the right time. The collapse in demand for law degrees is hitting Mississippi College hard. 2011 saw MC’s last big class: 214 students. Then, reforms pushed by the watchdog group Law School Transparency and negative media attention gave college students the picture of the job market that law grads already knew. As applications fell, MC shrank the 1L class size by 55 students and maintained quality. That is, until 2014, when the bottom fell out:

graph 1Source: Law School Transparency. For a sharper image click here

What the graph doesn’t show is what is happening at the bottom of the class. The 25th percentile of the 2010 1L class had an LSAT and GPA of 147 and 2.94, respectively. That’s about what the median student looks like today. Despite a 40% cut in the class size to 122 students, the 25th percentile of the 2015 1L class was at 142 for the LSAT and a GPA of 2.73. A 142 LSAT score would put you at the 18th percentile of all test-takers (including those that don’t go to law school), and you’ve still got a quarter of your law school class below you. I will focus on the bottom of the class, because I assume that’s where you’ll find those that fail the bar exam, rather than at the middle or top.

Even to be an unemployed lawyer, you’ve got the pass the bar exam, and GPA and LSAT scores are available indicators for test-taking ability. According to Law School Transparency’s metrics, students at the 75th percentile of MC’s 2015 1L class are at high risk for failing the bar, and more than a quarter are considered at “extreme risk.” MC’s bar passage rates are about to become very, very important.

In June, a Department of Education panel recommended temporarily stripping the ABA of the power to accredit new law schools, a responsibility it has held for 93 years. Under heightened scrutiny, the ABA is likely to amend the minimum bar passage requirement for schools to require at least 75% of all graduates that take a bar exam to pass within two years for a school to remain accredited.

Passage rates are declining with student quality all over the country, and Mississippi is no exception. As I recall, when I took it in 2009, the passage rate was 85%. The passage rate for Mississippi’s July, 2015 bar exam was 70.2%. For 2014, MC Law reported an average school pass rate of 72%, which is below the new requirement. The students that took that bar exam are measurably better than the ones that will be taking the bar in 2017 and 2018.

The ABA’s consumer information disclosures have been around long enough that we can now follow a class from its 1L year through to when it takes the bar exam. In 2011, there were five law schools in the country that had 25th percentile LSAT scores in the low 140’s, as MC now does, and we can see how each performed on the bar exam three years later:

School 25th percentile LSAT (2011) 25th percentile GPA (2011) Passage rate (2014)
Appalachian University Law School 142 2.66 44.1%
Lincoln Memorial School of Law 144 2.7 78.57%
U. of Puerto Rico School of Law 143 3.38 55.56%
Southern University Law Center 143 2.59 55.57%
UMass-Dartmouth School of Law 142 2.85 64.91%
Mean Passage Rate: 59.7%

Last year, Mississippi bar repeat takers passed at a rate of 35%. This number includes MC and Ole Miss classes that were more academically qualified than the MC Law classes that started in 2014 and 2015. Assuming the Class of 2018 follows the average pass rate of these comparable schools, and that every student who fails the bar takes it one more time (in reality, some will give up after the first try and few can afford the $825 exam fee more than twice) and passes at a 35% rate, we get an expected composite two-year pass rate for the MC Class of 2018 of 73.8%. Not good enough.

To prevent law schools from gaming the system by taking more 1L students only to fail them before they can take the bar, the ABA is also expected to amend its rules to impose a 20% maximum attrition rate. When a school exceeds that, there is a rebuttable presumption that the school has made exploitative admissions decisions. MC’s attrition rate is 20.5%. If more risky students come that cannot be removed before they take the bar, MC’s accreditation will be under review 2-3 years from now.

From what Dean Scott says, applications are up this year, but nationally they’re only up about 1% from their lowest numbers since the late 1970’s. Those applications are also coming later in the year, indicating a lack of enthusiasm for law school. Students are demanding bargains, and they’re not bringing the credentials they used to. Top students are unconvinced that any law school would be a good idea even with hefty grants. MC’s median scholarship is almost twice what it was 5 years ago and more students get them, but it hasn’t allowed them to get any more selective. At an 85% acceptance rate, MC approaches a de facto open admissions policy.

With class size almost halved and scholarships up, its not crazy to assume that MC’s revenue will halve. If MC Law’s costs haven’t adjusted, Mississippi College will not go deep into its small $69 million endowment to support it. Without the ability to put a lot more cash on the table, Dean Scott should not expect future classes to look any better than this last one.

MC could shrink the class size yet again, but their riskiest students constitute at least one-third of this last class and maybe as many as half of them. Is it worth staying open with class sizes of 60 or 70? MC will need to provide intensive bar prep classes for students and grads who’ve failed the bar, and maybe even dissuade poor students from taking the bar, hopefully by finding them non-legal jobs. Alternatively, MC could lobby the Supreme Court to make the bar exam easier, like Oklahoma did recently. There aren’t a lot of good choices, but MC has to act now. If there is even a question about losing their accreditation, it’ll scare off the qualified students they need.