It's that time of year: but before our predictions, our exciting annual disclaimer. I feel like this is more important than ever, so please read, even if after jumping down below. Disclaimer: the future is hard to see. When we do this annual blog, we talk to many experts—CEOs of LSAT prep companies, deans of law schools, deans of admissions, and so forth. The first thing almost everyone says is, "Well who knows what next cycle will be like?" then the second thing is often "Wait, aren't you the person that is supposed to be doing the prediction?" We have been lucky the last four cycles, and because of that good fortune this has become a popular annual event. But we are bound to be off one year. We certainly do not know with certainty what next cycle will really be like—no one does yet. This year, like last, also seems pretty hard to predict, so please do not base a huge order life decision on this blog. Call us if you have such a decision to make, or call friends, family, a law school, another admissions consultant. Please do not rely on this blog alone.
With that said, here is what our best stab at next cycle is. It is going to look a heck of a lot like this past cycle because of some off-setting reasons, although it will likely be slightly more competitive at the top.
This is based on a few factors, so let me get into them.
(1) Employment data looked stronger this year. That is a bit misleading because there was a much smaller graduating class entering the job market. Percentages are therefore up, but raw hiring is not. Next year there will be a larger class, and it will be interesting to see what hiring looks like then. Either way, many of the cursory media reports emphasize a better legal job market, which will encourage some to not wait on attending law school but rather to jump in.
Paradoxically, I should note that we are due for a recession. We're not predicting one, but hundreds of years of economics say it's inevitable at some point. What happens with graduate education during recessions? There is a boost in applications, not a decline in the first year or so. Graduate education tends to be counter-cyclical to the economy in a short-term recession, as graduating college students have a more difficult time with their job search. So if a recession hits (but it would need to hit us in the next month or so – watch for what happens in the next few weeks in the U.S./China trade-war issue), we may see a cycle that is more than a bit up and more than a bit competitive. Hence the paradox; a strong job market means, in part, that the cycle will be a little up, a market collapse (in the very near future) would mean a much more competitive cycle. Instincts are that a short-term recession is in our future, but likely will impact the 2020-2021 cycle more than this upcoming cycle. We will keep an eye on that.
Impact: slight increase
(2) Civic-minded applicants. Why are graduate school and business school admissions down of late, but not law? One reason is there is a greater passion for making change in the legal arena. There is an election coming up with issues of incredible gravitas. Undergraduate students are becoming more drawn to the law as a means of change. We hear this all the time from admissions friends who read thousands of personal statements—recent national events have fired up the political activism of many in the age group applying to law school, and many have decided to try to make change through the legal world with a law degree.
Impact: slight increase
(3) More test options for applicants. This applies to both the LSAT and the GRE. LSAC has expanded its testing schedule significantly. With more opportunities to test, potential applicants on the fence might be enticed to sign up. We've seen this with the March 2019 LSAT, which data shows has brought a small but notable number of applicants to the pool who would otherwise not have applied this year. On the other hand, more people than ever are retaking. This year we saw an increase in overall tests administered, but a decrease in the number of first-time test takers. This trend is likely to continue. Increased testing opportunities may not significantly increase the applicant pool, just the number of times the average applicant takes the LSAT.
The GRE is another factor. To date, there are about 2,300 non-LSAT applicants (of whom we expect the GRE to make up a significant chunk). That's about 4% of the total applicant pool. However, this was the first year of widespread penetration of the GRE in law school admissions. As of today, 39 schools accept the GRE for admissions. We anticipate this number to continue to grow. Don't expect the GRE to become a major player overnight, but every year it will make deeper inroads.
Impact: slight increase
What about the off-setting variable that we think will make applicants flat?
There's just one, but it's a big one. Labor market conditions. Employers plan to hire 16.6% more graduating college students this year than last. That would constitute the largest jump since 2007—which could mean that a slightly increased number of admits from this cycle decline their law school offers and jump into a job. Typically that same group will often apply the following cycle (or the one after that). Meaning some applicants from this past cycle may be applying again with a year of work experience under their belt. But that’s not going to be a big number of people compared to the pool of potential 2019-2020 KJD applicants who decide to take advantage of employment opportunities for a couple years, and sit out the cycle. Adding to this, unemployment for college graduates is a historically low 2.1%. More law-school eligible people who are working means fewer who decide they want to take the time and debt to attend law school.
Given how the first three factors we looked at only slightly raised our expected applicant pool, this one makes us think it’ll be closer to flat.
What else should you be aware of?
First, keep an eye on waitlist movement this summer. More waitlist movement is likely to pull applicants into the 2018-2019 entering class, instead of reapplicants next year. Substantial waitlist movement will be good news for applicants in 2019-2020, and less waitlist movement will be bad news.
Watch for updates on LSAT testing volume, both total registrants and first time test takers. We first reported initial June and July registration volumes of 24,000 and 11,000 respectively, since updated to 23,000 and 13,000. The linked post explains in greater depth, but to sum it up these numbers are a sign of relatively flat testing volume. Which is good news for applicants!
2019-2020 will be again be a slow cycle, although with more front loading for an increased number of schools. This year we saw a trend of accelerating early applications—and it wasn't just confined to the highest score ranges. There was a 14% year over year increase in LSAT applicants by November 1 this cycle; since then that has diminished to a 1.7% increase. Applicants are getting savvier every year, and are realizing the benefits of getting their application in sooner rather than later; expect this to continue. We'll talk about this more in a full cycle retrospective at a latter date.
The addition of a July LSAT administration and forward shifting of the fall tests will only strengthen this phenomenon. The change to LSAT administration schedule has thrown off school's ability to predict application volume based on previous year's data. Selective schools probably got more selective this year because their week over week volume data looked way up at the beginning of the cycle due to early fall LSAT scores coming in a month earlier than previous years and more summer LSAT opportunities creating more early cycle applications. That may not affect the whole industry, but we speculate that more early applications leads to longer wait times for decisions because schools aren't used to the volume early in the cycle.
And finally, "it's the economy, stupid." A major market crash would be strong impetus for increased applicants. If we get through the summer without such a correction, then economic factors are unlikely to significantly affect applicant volume.
FINAL PREDICTION: Applicant numbers will neither be up nor down in any significant way. That is, in any way that would impact the competitiveness of the cycle. The cycle itself might be more competitive, however, as the number of top scorers will likely be higher. There will be a rush of September and early November admits and then a somewhat slow but steady pace through December. After that it is going to seem painfully slow until wait-list season. There should be moderate wait-list action, like we may just be on the verge of seeing this cycle. So the more things change, the more they will stay the same next cycle. It's the following cycle we really have an eye on.