TBJ January 2022

2021: The Year in Review

Legal Education

Written by John G. Browning

For law schools in 2021, both in Texas and nationwide, the theme of the year was continuing to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic while experiencing record increases in numbers. First-year enrollment is up at most campuses, after a significant upsurge in admissions with applications to law school increasing by nearly 13%, according to data from the Law School Admission Council, or LSAC. A total of 71,048 people applied to American Bar Association-accredited law schools in 2021, up from 62,964 in 2020—the largest national applicant pool of the decade. Expert observers attribute the uptick in applications to a number of factors, ranging from the slowdown in the job market caused by the pandemic to renewed attention to racial and social justice issues. The University of Texas School of Law, for example, aimed for an incoming class of 300 and ended up welcoming 419 new students—a 40% increase and the largest among the top 20 nationally ranked schools.

The increase in applications nationally was also accompanied by an increase in median LSAT scores.

According to the LSAC, the number of people with test scores in the highest band of 175 to 180 more than doubled in the last cycle. Texas A&M University School of Law, for example, reported a three-point increase in its median LSAT score, one of the biggest in the country. Some experts point to the pandemic-prompted switch to a remote LSAT for the rise in high LSAT scores; whatever the reason, the LSAC says that no law school has yet reported a decline in its median LSAT score.

A perennial concern for law students is, of course, bar passage rate. The overall pass rate for the July 2021 Texas Bar Exam was 77.77% for first-time examinees, according to the Texas Board of Law Examiners. The University of Texas School of Law posted the highest pass rate at 94.6%. It was followed by Texas A&M University School of Law with a 93.33% rate, Texas Tech University School of Law with a 90.9% pass rate, the University of Houston Law Center with an 87.08% pass rate, Baylor Law School and its 87.05% rate, SMU Dedman School of Law and its 85.94% rate, St. Mary’s University School of Law with a 71.67% pass rate, South Texas College of Law Houston with a 71.57% rate, the UNT Dallas College of Law with a 68.37% pass rate, and Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law with a 54.17% rate.

Another consistent concern for law students is the cost of legal education. According to the ABA Young Lawyers Division 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt report, the average law school debt is $164,000, and 95% of law students take out loans; over half graduate with six-figure debt. A 2020 ABA Young Lawyers Division/Access Lex Institute survey puts the average debt load somewhat smaller, at $145,000. That same study also found that most newer lawyers with student loan debt have postponed or decided against major life milestones (buying a house, having children, etc.) due to the amount owed.

Finally, perhaps the biggest story in Texas legal education this year was the news that St. Mary’s became the first in the nation to offer an online law degree accredited by the ABA. The five-year pilot program will start in the fall of 2022 with an initial cohort of 25 students attending the part-time J.D. program. According to Dean Patricia Roberts, the law school decided to launch an online-only J.D. program based on the need for greater access to legal education in South Texas while eliminating the expense of a residential program, telling Legaltech News, “there are people who … can’t leave their job or family or they can’t afford the cost of spending about $20,000 plus living, moving, and other personal expenses to move to a city like San Antonio.” Roberts pointed out that St. Mary’s existing experience in providing online education was a significant factor in securing the ABA’s approval.

JOHN G. BROWNING is a former justice of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. He is a past chair of the State Bar of Texas Computer & Technology Section. The author of five books and numerous articles on social media and the law, Browning is a nationally recognized thought leader in technology and the law.

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