We hope everyone is safe and healthy — it's been a crazy couple of months for the world. That craziness has definitely bled over into the law school realm as well. With online classes, delayed bar examinations, LSAT cancellations, and general chaos, things are really a bit out of control.
This update won't be quite the same as our usual volume updates. We'll cover the important metrics, but with so much uncertainty it's just very hard to make any predictions. We're not prophets (and if we were we'd be living on islands with our stock market gains, not writing blog posts).
LSAT applicants, total applicants, and applications are all down compared to last year.
Individual applicant volume is down at almost two-thirds of law schools.
So far we really haven't seen any major changes in expected volume from our March update — COVID-19 hasn't yet made a big impact on overall applicant numbers this cycle. That's not too surprising, given that the crisis really only started developing in the US late into the application cycle.
What is Driving Applicant Volume?
At this point in the cycle, almost all volume is deadline-driven. So on days with common application deadlines — the first/last of the month, the fifteenth — we tend to see large spikes in volume, and relatively minimal movement otherwise. For example, between April 3 and April 14, there was only an average of 55 LSAT applicants each day. But on the 15th we had 179 LSAT applicants — over three times the daily average. This makes complete sense. Anyone who hasn't yet applied is either waiting on some component of their application (likely a test score) or needs a bit of a kick in the butt to actually get the applications in. Deadlines give that nudge.
There haven't been major changes in the applicant volume since early March when we last looked at the data. The release of February 2020 LSAT scores did bring the relative decline of LSAT applicants from last year down. This is a common occurrence. Some applicants submit applications before their test scores release, and so aren't counted in the LSAT applicant pool until after those scores are sent out by LSAC. But in terms of overall applicant volume, there's only been about a 0.5% increase in volume since those February scores were released.
This lends a lot of credence to our (admittedly obvious) assumption that the addition of more LSAT testing dates isn't necessarily driving greater applicant volume, it's just spreading it out more.
Take a look at LSAT first-time test taker administration volume for this cycle and last.
There was a decline in first-time test takers for every single administration except July 2019. Many of you will recall the special offer LSAC made for that exam as it switched to digital administration; while that obviously drove some of the decline in first-time test taker volume, look at the different testing periods compared to one another.
Generally, they're quite close. Applicants are simply taking advantage of the opportunity to select a test date that better works for their schedule. Before the COVID-19 situation it looked as if the March and April dates would continue to reflect this trend; now unfortunately it's impossible to compare.
LSAC's score resurrection offer (aka Zombie Scores) doesn't appear to have made a major impact on volume. That's not really surprising. Only about 1,500 did not already have a score on record, and many of them would only have been able to resurrect a score that probably didn't reflect their best ability. That isn't to say it wasn't good of LSAC to offer the option, as it probably did help some folks who were hurt by the COVID-19 situation. Just that there simply weren't enough eligible people to really make a difference.
Breaking Down Applicant Volume
Note: we know that our numbers are different from LSAC's. This is because ours are based on comparisons to last cycle's data as recorded day-of, meaning the score band percentage changes are based on applicants' highest LSAT score at this time last cycle. LSAC's comparison data takes into account the eventual full-cycle high score of any applicant who had applied by this time last year, even if they had not yet achieved that score by this time last year. This does change the numbers somewhat, but we feel it is a more accurate representation of what schools and applicants were actually looking at, data-wise, at this point last year.
The decline in <165 applicants has moderated a bit, which is good news for schools in that range — they were looking at some really steep drops in volume earlier in the cycle. The less great news for schools in that range is that we're almost done with applications by now, though this becomes less true the farther down the LSAT score band echelons you go.
At this point last year there were only about 7,800 applicants left to submit in the entire cycle, a very small figure compared to the overall applicant pool. And once March 2019 LSAT data hits, we'll fall behind much more quickly (this will happen in a few days).
Here are some graphs showing applicant volume in each LSAT score band.
One interesting thing these charts show, now that we're far enough into the application year, is just how different timing is for applicants in different score ranges. Compare how early the 170+ curves flatten compared to the <160 curves, for example. We always say early is better for applications — but this helps show a nuance that "early" depends on what range you're applying in.
Non-LSAT applicants include anyone applying without an LSAT score, which is mainly GRE applicants. ABA regulations don't necessarily require applicants have any test score to apply to law school in certain circumstances, so some of these applicants will be those who just haven't and won't take any test. However, given the ever-growing number of law schools accepting the GRE, it's pretty safe to say that the bulk of these applicants are those applying with a GRE score.
Non-LSAT applicants have actually declined slightly since last year, with 2,810 non-LSAT applicants to date compared to 3,002 last year at this time. The share they make up of the applicant pool is essentially unchanged, at 5.3% this year compared to 5.4% last year.
The year-over-year numbers are slightly misleading at this point however. Last year, there was a surge of non-LSAT applicants in the lead-up to and aftermath of the March 2019 LSAT. These were generally folks who were taking that test, and wanted to get the ball rolling on their applications before scores came out. Once scores came out, the number of non-LSAT applicants dropped precipitously because those same applicants now had LSAT scores. So in the next couple days, our year-over-year comparison will be much more accurate — and we'll see a pretty decent growth in non-LSAT applicants over the last cycle.
Applications continue to outpace applicants, but we now are down in our overall application volume.
Applicants are, on average, applying to very slightly more law schools than last year, but fewer than 2017-2018.
It will be interesting to see if the number of applications per applicant declines over the rest of the cycle at a faster rate than last year — given the economic crisis and loss of income many applicants have experienced, it's possible they may be forced to be more selective about where they apply just due to application fees.
Obviously the COVID-19 situation makes predictions more difficult due to the lack of comparable past data, but we'll do our best!
Law School Reactions to COVID-19
Law schools are under tremendous pressure right now, especially in the <165 range where there was already an applicant decline. It's no secret that the pandemic has made things exceptionally difficult financially for universities nationwide. A great number of law schools rely on central university support to balance their finances. If that support starts getting cut or eliminated, then schools will have hard choices to make. Most will still probably be able to enroll a class at their target size, but it will require reducing their discount rate, i.e. the average scholarship amount they offer their students. Nearly three-quarters of students at ABA-accredited law schools receive some kind of scholarship money, per the most recent 509 data. A reduction in discount rate would mean that schools will be less able to attract the very best of their applicant pool, and would probably lead to losses in entering GPA and LSAT medians. Cutting class sizes in order to mitigate this effect isn't an attractive option either, since that would mean bringing in fewer tuition dollars.
Applicant Reactions to COVID-19
Law school applicants — like many of us — are very, very nervous right now. The prospect of online fall classes, while far from certain, has many quite unhappy and some even hesitant to matriculate this year.
They're also understandably concerned about job prospects. The COVID-19 recession has resulted in 22 million unemployment claims so far, and other economic indicators look volatile at best. A few big law firms have even begun to make salary cuts and hiring freezes and furlough some associates. Many experts believe that this may turn into a longer-term recession. The last recession was not kind to the legal field — hiring slowed immensely, and recovery, especially for new graduates, lagged far behind improvement in the overall economy. To this day many schools struggle to place graduates in quality jobs. In fact, 44 law schools saw less than 70% of their 2018 graduates secure full-time, long-term JD-required or advantage positions. Applicants are very justifiably wondering how those numbers will look in a few years when they would be graduating from law school — whether it's a V-shaped recession with a quick bounce-back (as many are predicting) or a more prolonged period of economic turmoil, there's a chance the negative effects will linger when it comes to legal hiring.
Because of these factors, some applicants are considering requesting to defer their offers of admission to start law school fall 2021. We don't know yet how many will decide to follow through and request a deferral, and no way of knowing how generous schools will be in granting them in the face of a potential surge in such requests. On the other hand, some applicants who may have otherwise considered deferring in order to gain work experience are looking at a decimated job market and probably thinking law school sounds great right now.
Interestingly enough, we're not seeing a ton of interest in reapplying next year. Applicants tend to believe that it will be a more competitive cycle (we agree) and don't want to risk worse outcomes.
International applicants are a wild card. Visa processing is shut down in most countries and severely delayed where it isn't. With over 4,000 international law school applicants so far this year, any trouble they have obtaining student visas could really impact admissions. Consider that a fifth of Harvard's incoming 1L class is international. Many of them probably already have visas or will be able to get them, but with such a large share, it very well may be that a significant portion of the incoming class is unable to secure a visa. This could mean significant waitlist movement. Not all schools have such large international student bodies, of course, and whatever effect this does have will scale in proportion to a school's typical international student body. This isn't to say that international students will definitely be unable to attend in their usual numbers. If things open up soon and USCIS is able to work quickly — or if a significant portion of law schools go fully or partly online for the fall semester, meaning students can work from their home countries — we may not see much change. It really depends on the virus.
Another consideration is LSAT Flex, the online LSAT being offered to those who were registered for the now-cancelled April LSAT. LSAT Flex will be administered on May 18 and 19, with scores out in early June. There are about 17,500 people eligible for that test. We don't know how many will choose to take it, since LSAC is also offering the option to opt out of LSAT Flex and receive a coupon for a future LSAT administration. But even if a large percentage of eligible test-takers take LSAT Flex, that won't make up the difference for schools from the cancelled March and April LSAT administrations (after all, the March 2019 LSAT had over 17,000 people take the test), but it could help a bit, and schools are surely appreciative of LSAC's flexibility, especially those schools in the lower LSAT ranges that have seen the largest applicant decline (also the schools with less of their incoming class filled). And of course, those who were hoping to use a new LSAT score to get off waitlists will appreciate the option to take this test.
What does it all mean?
Waitlist movement could be very interesting, and unfortunately it could also be very messy.
A lot depends on how applicants react to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation. If there's greater yield, which we have seen some evidence for, that would tamp down on waitlist movement at a given school. Less, the opposite. The situation with international applicants also bears watching. If even a small chunk of those applicants aren't able to matriculate due to visa issues, then schools will be using their waitlists to fill those spots. That could stimulate some of the top-down waitlist movement we usually see.
Some schools are delaying deposit deadlines, and LSAC overlap reports no longer give specific names, just numbers. That may make it harder for schools to get a handle on their incoming class earlier, and lead to prolonged waitlist movement. The COVID situation may also lead to more last-minute withdrawals than usual if applicants have a family member (or themselves) become sick, have trouble obtaining a visa, get activated for military service in a hot zone, etc.
Overall, we're cautiously optimistic about more waitlist movement than we'd previously expected. But it might be an unpleasantly long wait for some folks to get good news.
For law schools with <150 medians (27 total) this is going to be an especially tough cycle. Those schools have generally seen the largest application volume declines, and new ABA regulations regarding minimum bar passage rates for accreditation are putting pressure on those programs to enroll a more academically qualified class. Many of them are also affiliated with central universities most vulnerable to the COVID-19 recession. We expect that many of these schools will seriously struggle.
Potential good news for future applicants is that it seems unlikely we'll see widespread median increases. There just isn't enough applicant volume for most schools to improve their stats while also enrolling the same class size. That's also good news for schools who may be looking at their class profile and realizing they won't be able to increase medians — most everyone else is likely in the same boat, so there likely won't be a national average median increase that would slam you in the rankings.
Overall, the current crisis is making things tough to predict. It's also very hard on schools and applicants alike. We would encourage everyone to have patience. Easier said than done, we know, but we're all in this together.