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.

  • Jackson Jambalaya

    One thing MC and the ABA should allow is students to take classes without pursuing a degree. The old Jackson law school allowed people to do so. Thus business owners and others could take classes that might actually be useful to them without having to spend a fortune and time they didn’t have on a degree.

    See Andover Law School’s fight against the ABA in the 1990’s.

  • Gulf Stream

    I have never understood how MC remains competitive in Mississippi. Ole Miss has a higher incoming class profile, higher bar passage rate, and is MUCH cheaper. While MC has a solid job placement rate, so does Ole Miss. The only advantage that I could readily identify is proximity to jobs – there are many more legal jobs available in Jackson so it is easier to clerk/intern/extern.

    I know a lot of good lawyers that graduated from MC, so this is not a knock on the quality of attorneys it produces. I think every boss I ever had attended MC.

    • wtfreqkenneth

      The really sharp lawyers I know that went to MC either went for free or because they had to be in Jackson. But you’re right. MC isn’t competitive. There are only so many students out there that want to go to law school and are capable of being lawyers. Everyone is looking for bargains or quality, so there aren’t enough left over for the bottom 30 or 40 law schools.So, schools have to dip lower in the applicant pile than they ethically should.

  • Mediumlaw attorney

    Another great article about this issue. One thing I’d like to see someone talk more about is the scholarship bait and switch scam.

    A certain % of students are offered scholarships upon admission, but to keep said scholarship, you must rank in the top x%. The % who get scholarships initially is larger than the % who can mathematically keep them, given the strict ranking system employed. So the schools know factually what % of students they offer scholarships will not keep them after the first year. They also know that few people who lose their scholarship will drop out after the first year.

    The effect is that the schools can spend some money on the front end, and hook more people into paying tuition for 2 years. It isn’t coincidental – it is a concerted scheme that preys on uninformed students.

    • Jackson Jambalaya

      Yup. MC would practice the C curve. Unfortunately for MC students, Ole Miss didn’t so that meant once up on a time the big firms wouldn’t look at most MC grads while Ole Miss grads enjoyed a huge advantage.

      This is good stuff. I didn’t realize MC Law had shrunk so much.

    • JD2013

      MC Law doesn’t bait and switch scholarships (unless that has changed since I graduated in 2013). When I was fortunate enough to attend on a full tuition scholarship, it was mathematically possible for all scholarship students to remain in the percentage necessary to keep the scholarship. I personally had a fantastic experience at MC Law. I got my feet wet in chancery court as a 3L in one of the limited practice clinics, and my government externship led immediately to a job offer. I’m rooting for my alma mater to successfully navigate the next several years, and I believe that having a law school in Jackson is a benefit to the profession.

      • wtfreqkenneth

        I hope they do too. I don’t have anything against MC, they’re just interesting because it’s where we can see the massive decline in interest in law school hit locally. MC actually did exactly the right thing and shrink their class size significantly, but they can’t shrink it fast enough. I went over to check some stuff out of the library last week, and I looked at some of the class composites from the 80’s. One class, I think it was 1982, had 34 people in it, most were 50-60, but that was with a smaller building and faculty. I think if they were able to be that small, this last class would have been significantly smaller.

  • Sammy Edmondson

    Why does this guy have such a bee in his bonnet about MC?

  • Terminator

    I worked in an office in Jackson where nearly all the young lawyers graduated at MC Law School. they were all very deeply in debt to the point it shocked me; a couple of them confessed that they had used student loans for tuition, books, rent, automobile, and other living expenses and thus owed six figure debts. I asked one young man if he realized how lucky he was to have a job in that office [government office] also asked if people he graduated with and had passed the bar were also working. his reply: yes, most of them are tending bar and delivering pizzas.

    • Mediumlaw attorney

      Not all but some are coming out of MC having financed 4 years of undergrad, 3 years of overpriced law school, and all living expenses for those 7 years. They will never be able to pay that back. It’s a sad situation made worse by the fact that no one seems to be doing anything about it.

  • Gulf Stream

    I suppose you saw that Scott resigned last week…