For those of us lucky enough to work in academia, the passage of time takes on a cyclical, almost agrarian, cadence. Many of us enjoy a festive week away from work to kick off the long dark of winter. During the winter months, students huddle in the library, and librarians spend much of their time shepherding their flock through the dark times. Graduation celebrations cap the rebirth and renewal of spring. The heat of summer sees our students go off to labor in their chosen fields, and due to their absence, librarians also pursue the more labor-intensive “library projects.” However, in agricultural societies the most important and exciting time of year occurs with the collection of the harvest. This also holds true in academic law libraries. Every fall, as cool breezes inject new energy into campus, so does the arrival of a new crop of 1Ls.
Much has been made of the decline in law school applications in recent years. As a precipitous decline in harvest yields would lead to famine for an agrarian society, the decline in admissions has caused a tightening of the belts for law schools. Of course, in times of extreme desperation the strong tend to appropriate scant resources from weaker neighbors. Thus, higher ranked schools have loosened their admissions standards to take students from mid-ranked schools, who have in turn relaxed standards to admit students who would historically only have gained acceptance at lower ranked schools, a process which has resulted in an overall lessening of quantitative student qualifications (i.e. LSAT scores and G.P.A.) throughout the field.
Although the process described above began several years ago, at the University of Kentucky, we have only truly felt the effects this year. Before the arrival of this year’s class, the faculty discussed whether the relaxed credentials of the diminished first year class would leave us with students out of their depth.
As a teacher of legal research, I interact with small numbers of students at a time. After three weeks of class, I feel like I already know my students’ strengths and weaknesses. Happily, I have noticed a phenomenon opposite that feared by the faculty prior to the class’s arrival. While our LSAT and GPA numbers are down, those have always been inconsistent predictors of law school success. In fact, this year’s class strikes me as much more engaged than previous classes. For instance, every year I offer students extra practice exercises, mostly as a joke. Prior to this year, not a single student had ever taken me up on the offer, but multiple students have availed themselves of my offer this year.
I surmise that declining applications stem from a fall in students coming to law school because they don’t know what else to do. We are left with students who actively want to be lawyers, and thus far it has shown in their level of engagement. I am quite pleased with this year’s crop, and I wonder if going for smaller but more dedicated harvests would not be the best long-term course of action for legal academia.