Staying at Your Chosen Law School

To me, studying attrition data is a no-brainer. It goes like this: some schools take $40k of your money and graduate all of you. Some schools take $40k of your money and flunk out 10% or more of you. Which school do you want to go to?

The " 2011 ABA-LSAC Official Guide to Law Schoolslogo" shows two attrition rates for every law school. In addition to "academic" attrition (a/k/a/ "flunking out"), there's a column called "Other." What other? Why else would people leave?

  1. They hated law school;
  2. They hated this law school, and transferred to another;
  3. They left to attend the other half of a joint degree, like an MBA; they're still enrolled in the university, but not at the law school; or
  4. They ran out of money!
ABA Attrition Data

This school is practically perfect in every way; no one flunked out, no one wanted to leave. That's not too surprising; if my memory is correct, this data is for Stanford.

The fact that Stanford keeps its students is no surprise; the surprise is that when my new employee Jared and I calculated the data, we found that about 40 schools kept their students -- no flunks and negligible "other." Another 40 had about 1% flunk out.

And obviously these 80 were not all at the top. Sure, Harvard and Stanford were up there; but so were Ohio State and Colorado, Connecticut and Emory. The moral of the story, my children, is:

Don't make assumptions; look at and understand data.

Now why are we looking at the next page? Again for two reasons. (No, that's not just a coincidence; if I pick an example that shows only one thing, I have to pick twice as many examples!)

This school had 42 people flunk out, and another 42 leave! Metaphors about sinking ships come to mind. But look at the percentage!

Only 9% of an obviously large class left; and a flunk-out rate of 4.5% is just about dead-on for the national average.

ABA Attrition Data

Nationally, for 2007 (which is what's reported in the ABA Book for 2009), 4.3%, or 2110 of about 48,000 students, flunked out. And what about the 4.5% who left? That's only half the national average of 9%. Of that 9%, half transferred to other schools and half went -- we don't know. See the possibilities above.

If the school has a large part-time program, a fifth possibility presents itself; the student simply found that the demands of work, family and school were too much, and opted out, at least for the time being.

ABA Attrition Data

Now what about this school? It lost about 30% of its class in three years, and the greater number flunked out rather than walked out. I would beg my clients not to apply to this school.

FYI, neither of these schools is Thomas Cooley. Cooley's student body is so large that these numbers would represent very small percentages.

So who are they? Go look at the data!

The Usual Caveats

 The numbers in the book are not entirely representative, since they are based on two assumptions:

  • That the number of people who leave after the first year is constant from year to year, and
  • That the number of students enrolled is constant from year to year.

I know that these two assumptions are false at some law schools, making this data inaccurate to some degree.  For instance, if a school had either halved or doubled its first-year class size this year, the second and third year attrition rates could be half or double the actual number. More typically, a number will be off by about 10%.  

The average cumulative attrition rate for all ABA-approved law schools is 4% academic and 9% other, for a total of 13%.  Be sure to check your list of schools against this reference point. A number of schools have much higher rates of attrition, and I believe you should factor that into your choice of where to apply.


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