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Law School Applications Are Down—A COVID-19 Glitch or LSAT Schedule Changes?
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The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake the legal world, now affecting the interest in legal education or more precisely, the lack of it.

According to the latest data from the Law School Admission Council, the law school applicant pool is most likely to shrink this year, with applicants to American Bar Association-accredited law schools being down 2.5% from this point in the cycle last year.

In 2019, schools had received 95% of all applications for the coming fall, by early June. If that timing holds true for this year, schools have little chance of making up that lost ground on applicants.

  
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This plunge in applicants ends a two-year resurgence that legal academics had hoped would become a continued recovery to offset years of decline.

It’s still unclear whether the lower number of applicants is a looming result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 The numbers don’t necessarily foretell lower enrollment because of changes in the administration of the LSAT. In-person LSATs for March and April were cancelled. Then the council announced the LSAT-Flex a remote version of the LSAT, in May and scheduled a second online exam for July. Therefore, there could be a spike in applications after the scores are released for the LSAT-Flex on Friday.

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The president of the LSAC, Kellye Testy, told Law.com that COVID-19 “shifted the timeline down.” Many law schools have extended application deadlines, she said.

“COVID created a period where nothing happened, and it shifted the timeline down,” Testy told LAW.com. “What we might have usually seen happen on May 1 could happen more like May 30 this year. Right now, we’re 2.5% off last year. I personally think it’s amazing that it’s only 2.5% given all the disruption.”



Another shadow in the admissions canvas is whether this year’s crop of graduating college seniors will make last-minute decisions to avoid the wounded job market and extend their legal education, as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

In 2010, law schools saw a record-breaking peak in applicants, and the post-recession year remains the high water mark for enrollment, illustrating that interest in graduate schools is countercyclical with the strength of the job market.

Typically, when the economy goes down, college applications go up. This is because when the economy is strong, there are more opportunities for jobs and less unemployment, which means fewer people consider law school and opt to go to work. While the uncertainty caused by the pandemic has created a slowdown in applications, it would seem that it would only be a matter of time before applications begin to spike.

The pandemic hit relatively late in the admissions cycle, and seniors who were scared by the bleak economic prospects weren’t able to switch gears and take the LSAT Flex until last month due to the canceled exams.

Testy told Law.com many applicants said that they didn’t originally intend to pursue a J.D. but are going that route due to canceled job offers and internships. Many law schools have extended their application deadlines to accommodate those latecomers, she noted. Meanwhile, a council survey of law school applicants found that the vast majority are still planning to enroll this fall despite uncertainty over what form their education will take.

“It’s at 85% or more, of those who have decided they still will attend,” Testy said. “They don’t love that it might be online, but that wouldn’t significantly affect their decision.”

The past decade has been unpredictable and tumultuous for law school admissions. After the peak in 2010, the applicant pool shrank for six straight years. By 2016 enrolment was down by nearly 38% from 2010. Two years later, in 2018- an unexpected surge of nearly 8% enrollment, that was called the “Trump Bump” on the idea that politics were pushing young people to pursue legal careers. Law school applicants were up another 3% in 2019.

Despite the overall plummet in applicants for the fall, council data shows a surge in the number of applicants with strong LSAT scores. The number of applicants with scores falling between 165 and 169 is up more than 6% over last year. The number of scores between 170 and 174 is up 1%, and scores in the highest band—175 to 180—are up nearly 7%. 

By contrast, each score band from 164 on down saw a decline from the previous year.



 

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