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Law school applicants surge 13%, biggest increase since dot-com bubble

5 minute read

Signage is seen outside of the Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., September 14, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Law schools struggled to manage a crush of applicants with high LSAT scores
  • Some schools will start the year with larger-than-expected 1L classes

(Reuters) - This was the year everyone wanted to go to law school.

The number of people applying for admission to law school this fall surged nearly 13%, making it the largest year-over-year percentage increase since 2002, according to the latest data from the Law School Admission Council.

And they were an impressive bunch. The number of people applying with LSAT scores in the highest band of 175 to 180 more than doubled from 732 last year to 1,487 this year.

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In total, 71,048 people applied to American Bar Association-accredited law schools this cycle, up from 62,964 at this point in 2020. That’s still significantly lower than the historic high of 100,601 applicants in 2004, but it’s by far the largest national applicant pool of the past decade.

“This was the cycle that surprised everyone,” said Mike Spivey of Spivey Consulting, whose firm assists clients in the law school admissions process. “In some cycles, applicants are surprised. In some cycles, law schools are surprised. But no one was able to anticipate the incredible spike of high LSAT scores.”

Many law schools struggled to manage the unexpected number of high-scoring applicants and will start the upcoming school year with larger 1L classes than they planned for, Spivey added.

Experts attribute the crush of applications to a number of factors, particularly the slowdown in the entry-level job market caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Law school and other graduate programs historically become more popular when jobs are tougher to come by in slow economies. Law school applicants shot up nearly 18% in 2002, amid the bursting of the so-called dot-com bubble. The number of people applying also climbed nearly 4% in 2009, amid the Great Recession.

But current events separate from the economy also prompted more people to consider a law degree this cycle, said Susan Krinsky, the council’s executive vice president for operations. The death of George Floyd, the national reckoning over systemic racism and inequality, and the death of iconic U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg all focused attention on the rule of law and the role lawyers play in pushing for a more equitable society. Election years also tend to yield more law school applicants, she noted.

“Just seeing what was going on in the world and all the disparities — so much was happening where a legal education can really change things for somebody,” Krinsky said.

The switch from the in-person LSAT to the shorter, online LSAT-Flex in June of 2020 helps explain some of the increase in applicants with high LSAT scores, Spivey noted. The Law School Admission Council has said the two versions are comparable and that internal data show aspiring lawyers had more time to study for the admissions test during the pandemic, yielding higher scores. LSAT tutors have also noted that, at minimum, a shorter test taken in the comfort of one’s own home is bound to be less stressful and more manageable than a longer exam taken at a testing center.

The council has said the LSAT will remain online through June 2022, but the final LSAT-Flex was given in June and is being replaced this month by a remote exam with four sections instead of three, which is still one section less than the traditional in-person LSAT.

Spivey predicts the application pool for next fall will remain robust, due in part to people deferring this year at schools with over-enrolled 1L classes, and those who got shut out in this competitive year trying again.

“You’re going to see a competitive cycle early on,” he said. “And I think schools are going to go incredibly slowly in admit decision-making. They got burned this year.”

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