Law School Applications Rise: What It Means for J.D. Hopefuls

·8 min read

Admissions statistics from the Law School Admission Council, or LSAC, reveal that the number of applicants to U.S. law schools so far this year is around 35% higher than it was at this point last year. Meanwhile, applications surged about 56% within that same time frame.

Because of this dramatic increase, it would be understandable if J.D. hopefuls who are seeking admission to law school next fall felt anxious about their chances of acceptance.

However, it is important for future lawyers to put these numbers in context and to appreciate that the admissions cycle is not over, some experts say. It's also crucial for law school hopefuls to consider the fact that -- for a variety of reasons -- J.D. applicants are more likely to apply early this year than they were in the past.

Reasons J.D. Hopefuls May Be Submitting Applications Earlier than Usual

Interest in law school has risen over the last several years. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the law school admissions landscape in significant ways, and those changes may partly explain the uptick in early J.D. applications, according to legal education experts.

Reginald McGahee, associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Howard University School of Law in the District of Columbia, explains that people who have been contemplating law school for a long time had more time for soul-searching during quarantine. With that time and space for introspection, some individuals realized that they wanted to become lawyers, McGahee suggests.

"The pandemic has forced a number of people to really take stock of the fragility of life and the importance of doing things that are fulfilling and nurture you and advance the goals that you set for yourself," he says. He adds that because people had to "slow down" during the pandemic, they couldn't distract themselves from big questions about what a good life is.

"We've been able to focus on those things that are really important to us, and I think that a lot of people are reconnecting with the idea that, if I'm going to work, let me add something to society that I didn't really think that I was adding before," McGahee says.

During the pandemic, the LSAC began offering an online, remotely proctored version of the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, for J.D. applicants to take instead of the traditional in-person exam. This modified version of the LSAT, the LSAT-Flex, can be scheduled at a time convenient to a particular student but must be completed within a week that is designated by the LSAC.

J.D. admissions experts suggest that the introduction of the LSAT-Flex allowed students to get their LSAT scores earlier than they might have done in years prior, which meant that they could apply to law schools sooner.

[Read: Why Is It So Hard to Get Into a Top Law School?]

Another factor in the recent uptick in applicants and applications, admissions experts say, is that aspiring attorneys have had more free time than usual during the pandemic, so they could spend some of that time filling out law school applications.

The Overall Competitiveness Level of This Admissions Cycle

Experts say it is too early to tell precisely how competitive this admissions cycle will be. Because this year is so different from others, it is hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the data from this year and prior years.

Kellye Testy, president and CEO of the LSAC, predicts that when the current admissions cycle ends, the total number of J.D. applicants to U.S. law schools will be around 10% higher than last year.

LSAT registrations are significantly elevated for upcoming exams, Testy says, pointing to this data point as evidence of a marked rise in demand for seats at law schools.

She notes that law school applicants are not only applying to school earlier than in prior years, but are also applying to a higher number of J.D. programs than usual, perhaps because they anticipated a particularly competitive admissions cycle.

[Read: The Impact of the Coronavirus on Legal Education.]

It is typical for law school applications to increase during economic downturns, according to admissions experts.

"Graduate admissions in general is counter-cyclical," Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted -- an admissions consultancy based in Los Angeles -- wrote in an email. "Some applicants due to the recession have lost their jobs, fear losing their jobs or being unable to find one, or are stagnating professionally."

Jeff Thomas, executive director of legal programs at Kaplan, attributes the enormous year-over-year increase in applications thus far to differences between testing procedures this year versus the prior year.

Thomas notes that in mid-2019, the LSAC transitioned from offering a paper-and-pencil, in-person exam to a digital, in-person exam. The council also began permitting test-takers to preview their score before electing to keep or cancel the score.

People in the first group of individuals to take the Digital LSAT in July 2019 were extremely likely to cancel their scores, and those people had to retake the LSAT, Thomas says, noting that this led many J.D. hopefuls to delay submitting their law school applications.

"So students last year applied historically late," Thomas says. "Students this year are applying historically early, because they had many more opportunities to test this year."

Testy suggests that certain current events have raised the prominence of the legal profession and boosted the number of aspiring lawyers, including the death of former Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Black Lives Matter protests. Many idealistic young people now view the legal field as a pathway to improving society to a degree that they did not previously, she says.

"They want to use law to make an impact, so I do think there's a desire to make a difference in our world in so many stress areas," Testy says.

The LSAC has expanded its outreach efforts, which encouraged more prospective law students to apply this year, Testy says. The organization has hosted numerous law school forums where prospective law students have an opportunity to meet with law school officials. For example, the next forum is Dec. 12, and law school hopefuls who are interested in attending the free virtual event can register through Dec.10.

LSAC also had initiatives designed to encourage aspiring attorneys from low-income households. For example, the council provided accommodations for potential LSAT-Flex test-takers without internet access or laptops to increase the likelihood that those law school hopefuls could take the exam.

Recent increases in J.D. applications have been noticeable in every segment of the applicant pool, including both recent college grads and nontraditional applicants, Testy says. The spike in applicants has been especially pronounced among African Americans, she adds, explaining that one reason behind this trend is the "nation's reckoning with racial injustice."

Takeaways for Law School Applicants

Regardless of how high the application numbers end up being at the end of this admissions cycle, one point that all J.D. admissions experts agree on is this: It is especially important this year for law school applicants to submit their applications in a timely fashion. Law schools typically admit students on a rolling basis, which means that it is always advisable for J.D. hopefuls to submit their applications as soon as they are polished and ready.

[Read: 5 Traits That Help People Get Into Top Law Schools.]

This year's J.D. admissions pool includes a large number of early applicants, which ups the ante for all J.D. hopefuls and means that they should not be lackadaisical about submitting their applications. The cost of delay this year could be greater than in a typical admissions cycle.

However, experts caution against sloppiness, noting that the quality of an application matters more than its timing. Every component of a law school application is important, experts suggest.

Testy recommends that students consider applying to a greater number of law schools than they would have in an ordinary admissions cycle to increase their odds of acceptance, since it appears that this cycle will be especially competitive. A prospective law student can also make a positive impression on a law school's admissions officers by demonstrating interest in that particular school, she suggests.

Michael Scharf, dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, foresees an increase in law school selectivity. "Admission will be more competitive and scholarship money may tighten up, especially later in the admissions cycle," he wrote in an email.

Testy and Thomas urge applicants who are eager to become lawyers not to postpone applying to law school out of anxiety over the application numbers. If an aspiring attorney has decided that next year is the best time to begin a journey into the legal profession, they say, that is when he or she should seek admission.

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