Here's one more sign of trouble for America's beleaguered law schools

Bar passage rates have plummeted in several big states, the National Law Journal reports, indicating America’s law schools may be accepting less qualified students than they once did.

In California, for example, passage rates for the exam in July hit the lowest point since 1986, with just 46.6% of total applicants and 60% of first-time test takers passing.

In New York, the passage rate for first-time test takers dropped 4% since the July 2014 test, from 74% to 70%, hitting the lowest point since 2004.

Passage rates also dipped in Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Part of the blame for these abysmal bar scores stems from a low demand for law school. With fewer applicants to choose from, law schools may be selecting students who don’t have the chops to actually become lawyers.

Law school applications have declined almost 40% in the past five years, from 87,900 in 2010 to 54,130 in 2015, the National Law Journal (citing the Law School Admissions Council) reports.

In order to boost attendance (and acquire more paying customers), law schools have been forced to admit students with drastically lower GPAs and law school admission test scores (LSAT) scores.

“Even though many schools have shrunk their enrollments, there is a greater decline among people at the high end of the LSAT distribution, than at the low end of the LSAT distribution,” says Jerry Organ, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. “So it’s not only a smaller pool of applicants, but it’s now shallower at the high LSAT end.”

Median LSAT Scores 2010 - 2014Jerry Organ/ Legal WhiteboardNumber of law schools with LSAT medians in LSAT categories 2010 – 2014

And according to the Law School Admission Council’s National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study, there’s a clear relationship between low LSAT scores — less than 150 — and failing the bar exam.

Though Organ does caution that there’s no “magic score” on the LSAT that predicts success on the bar, it is fair to say that students who score lower on the LSAT are less likely to end up passing the bar.

And budding lawyers who can’t pass the bar risk losing out in the tightening legal job market.

Between 2010 and 2020, the economy will provide 21,880 jobs for new lawyers annually, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013, citing the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

However, more than 44,000 students will graduate from law school each year.

Meanwhile, the average amount borrowed by students attending private law schools has shot up 78% in the last decade, from $70,147 in 2002 to $124,950 in 2011, according to the American Bar Association.

These students — who often go into debt to finance their education — risk becoming saddled with six-figure loans they’re never going to be able to pay off.

“Ten years ago, there weren’t that many students with low LSAT scores getting into law school,” Organ said. “I’m not sure that law schools are fully prepared for the difference in teaching a class with a median LSAT of 150 or 151, and teaching a class with a median LSAT of 145 or 146.”

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