Podcast: Harvard Law Goes Fully Remote for Fall 2020. Will Other Law Schools Follow Suit and What It Means for Applicants

In this podcast, Spivey Consulting Group founder Mike Spivey discusses Harvard Law School's recent announcement that all classes will be held fully remotely for Fall 2020 — what does it mean for other law schools, for international students, the ABA, and current applicants? Will this cause more waitlist movement? What about deferrals? Plus, a bit of a look into what the 2020-2021 cycle might bring.

Listen below, or via SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Hi, this is Mike Spivey at the Spivey Consulting Group, and I'm talking today about Harvard Law School's announcement a few days ago that they will be entirely online, remote, for this coming fall semester, and what are the implications not just for Harvard Law School, but for all other law schools as far as their plans going forward for this fall? Will other schools follow suit, or are there other plans in motion? Then I will conclude with, what does it mean this summer if you're a current applicant, particularly those on the waitlist?

Let me disclaim the following, which I think most people get, but it's important to disclaim. This podcast is going to be based on essentially two things. One is my firm's experience in admissions, which is numerous — I think over 180 years — but in that 180 years, we have zero years experience with global pandemics. None of us were deans of admissions in 1918. So my point is this: our experience is not as helpful here as it could be in other areas. Put in other terms, there is a lot of uncertainty. The podcast is also based on a flurry of phone calls and emails on our end over the last two days, but the people we talked to, to be clear, were also very much on the same page of, "Right now we're speculating." We can't know any of this for sure because things can change. There could be a recurvature of COVID to the extent that schools change their plans in July or August. There could be public health officials who change plans for schools for them.

But let me get into what we do know. To begin with, I know that Harvard's announcement this early was helpful for Harvard students and Harvard applicants — so kudos to them. The earlier they announced, and it seems like because this caught so many people off-guard, it seems like they basically made a decision and immediately announced it. That's helpful for people making their plans. What triggered this announcement? That's interesting because I think very possibly, very probably, that smart minds at Harvard said, you know, we don't know what's going to happen in the future, and we want to give people notice, and because we don't know, because this could be a health issue, we're just not going to put people at risk: faculty, staff, students, anyone. If you've ever walked across a college campus, and Harvard Law School is kind of like a college campus (they have something like 20 different buildings for their law school), there are also lots of visitors. You see babies on campus a good number of times. You see grandparents. It's very possible, in fact probable, that most of this decision derives from just concern for the well-being of others. That's the most likely scenario. I do want to bring up another scenario, though, because it plays in part with other schools, which is this: governance decision-making at law schools is a lot different than how I think people who haven't worked at a law school might envision it. You don't often have the dean acting like a CEO. A dean of a law school tends to have to act a little bit more like... I hate to use this word because it's not entirely accurate, but there are politics involved. It's consensus-building, political capital. My point being that — I don't know this; this is now me purely speculating — but there is a scenario where the Harvard faculty had a great deal of influence on this decision, because they may not have wanted to put people at risk. So it might not be a top-down decision but a more diffuse decision, which would play into what other schools are going to do, because faculty do have more say than in a hierarchical type organization.

So what are other schools going to do? This is the question, I think, that probably brought a lot of people to this podcast. What we've gathered is as follows. There are 203 law schools. The vast majority would very much like to be on campus in some form, very much — and let me be clear about this — with everyone having backup options so they can opt out. If you don't want to take classes on campus, every school we've talked to is planning for students to have that option. There are some schools — and this particularly tends to be the ones with more resources, which tend to be the ones that are higher up in the rankings, for lack of a better word — that have looked at different options. I think, based on some of the information we've gathered, it has been intimated to us, and I cannot say this for certain, that another school with large amounts of resources may follow precisely the Harvard announcement. That's the only school that we've heard this for, but you may see a scenario where another school is also entirely remote. I wouldn't make any decisions based on me saying that; I would wait for an announcement — this is a factual piece of information we've heard that they may do this, but we don't know that they're going to do this.

In respect to the other schools, I think we're looking more, when you're talking about the T10/T14 range, there have been a lot of hybrid ideas thrown out there. And by hybrid I mean as follows: you may see 1L classes on campus but 2L and 3L classes entirely online. You may see other scenarios where the small classes are in person but in larger classrooms, hence allowing for social distancing, but large classes are online. So you can see a scenario where you're a student at a school, and some of your classes you're taking from an apartment or home or (in rare cases) a dorm, and some classes you're showing up for. It has been again intimated that maybe some T14 schools will have this model of 1L classes in person with 2L and 3L online — but, and this might be a theme, I'll try not to be overly obsessed with saying this, but I would wait for each individual school, or contact schools if you have questions. My hope for this podcast is to be informative, but to not influence any decision-making, because this podcast should not influence decision-making; it should be announcements from each individual school.

So, what we're going to see is, I believe, the vast majority of schools being on-campus. They may or may not enact some of these hybrid models, and that could go all the way from school 1 to school 203. I think some of it is going to depend on what happens with the pandemic over the summer, and no one really knows for sure. You can read an article any other day that contradicts an article from the previous day.

Let me talk, then, about what this means for current applicants, particularly applicants on the waitlist. 15% of the Harvard Law student body are international students. Harvard mentioned in their announcement they're going to have a dorm open, and that was a little bit of an enigma for us — we were curious, at first, whether that meant that Harvard was going to try to bring international students on campus and get them visas. We're not immigration lawyers, but our understanding having talked this out with people is that that's not the case, that Harvard can't put people in a dorm who are international students and get those students visas because they put them in a dorm. So, if you're a student who was admitted to Harvard and you're an international student, it would seem to us that if you don't have a visa, you're going to have no chance for Harvard to sponsor you for a visa.

I think Harvard has told people who are considering deferrals that if they get a certain threshold of deferral requests, they may space them out. What that means is you may be deferred to next year, but you may be deferred two years out. Either way, if there are a swath of deferrals larger than anticipated — there will be larger than past years, I would say that's all but guaranteed — then you see a scenario where Harvard is going to have to make more waitlist admits than they would have anticipated months ago.

Now let me move beyond Harvard. There are other schools that also have a large number of international admits that likely won't be able to get here. We don't know what percentage of those will want to defer, but a certain percentage will. There are also not just immigration considerations; there are ABA regulations for online courses. In 2019-2020, the ABA standard was that you could get up to a third of your credits online in your first year, up to 10 hours worth of credit. That was relaxed obviously for the spring, and while we haven't heard of a formal declaration from the ABA yet, we would expect that Harvard has had a lengthy conversation with the ABA. It works both ways — I don't think Harvard would have made this decision without the ABA signing off on it, nor if that hasn't happened do I think the ABA is going to tell every Harvard Law School student that they now won't get full credit for being online because Harvard has decided to be fully online. So I don't think this is an issue for the fall, but it's worthy enough to mention.

Point being this: there will be more substantial waitlist movement than otherwise would have been expected. So if you're a current applicant, generally, your entire experience with admissions has been the last 5, 6, 7, 8 months. So your experience with "admit waves" are these sort of large waves where a school will admit 500 people. I think there are going to be more waves than we would have anticipated months ago, I'm very confident of that, but I do want to say that it's not going to look like what you're used to seeing, which are these massive, Interstellar-like (if you've seen the movie) waves. I think what we're going to see this summer is a number of waves, I'll call them micro-waves, that originate from higher-ranked schools and then trickle all the way down in the classic domino effect, and I think we're going to see these throughout June and July. So what I would anticipate is small wave after small wave after small wave, not every day of course, but I think we're going to see a substantial amount of these small waves that persist throughout June and July, even early August, because schools don't quite know who's going to defer yet. Harvard mentioned that their window is now I believe June 15-19 for requesting deferrals — they've reopened their window – so you can see a scenario where on June 20 Harvard has a much better understanding of what percentage of their admitted students want deferrals. Again, beyond Harvard, you're going to see that from other schools too. Interesting times to be sure.

Just to cover a few other topics. As far as tuition, I think that you will see tuition frozen, maybe, at schools, but I don't think you're going to see tuition being remitted at any schools, even as schools go online. If there is some sort of massive spike in August where every school's online, law schools, like any entity in the United States, are part of a free market system, so there may be market pressures then to cut tuition, but outside of essentially the vast majority of schools going online (which we don't think is going to happen), I think tuition is going to remain constant; I don't think we're going to see remission of tuition.

I think it'll be a bigger transfer year, because I think schools need to take more transfer students to fill enrollment spots. I do not project that this year schools are going to abandon rankings considerations in order to fill larger classes. I actually think that's coming next year — because, since the Great Recession, almost all law schools have had some sort of funding from their central universities, and a lot of them have been essentially underwritten by their central universities. That's going to shut off, because colleges are being impacted more than law schools, and colleges have less ability to be nimble than law schools (they're larger; they have dorms).

So I will venture a little bit into next cycle, which is to say that while this cycle, I think, class sizes will stay relatively stable, maybe even a scenario where they decrease a little bit to keep medians and also to make social distancing in the classroom a little bit easier (maybe, I don't know that), I do expect that next cycle there are going to be more applications; we're going to have a blog on that in June, and I expect class sizes to also increase next cycle.

I hope this was helpful. We wanted to talk to as many people as we could, and we have; we've talked to a large number of people now. But again just to reiterate the point, things can change. These are uncertain times. But as far as we know right now, we don't think many schools are going to be entirely remote; we've only heard of one other that might be considering that. We do think you're going to see various different platforms of hybrid models where you'll be on campus, but perhaps not all of your classes are going to be in person.

This was Mike Spivey with the Spivey Consulting Group.