American law schools, typically traditionalist and resistant to change, have adapted with rare urgency to the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
Last spring, most law schools — like other educational institutions — moved classes online, canceled campus activities and events, and restricted libraries and other facilities. Many allowed their students to take classes on a pass-fail basis.
The majority of law schools are trying to blend online and in-person instruction to allow students to come to campus this fall, but some with an early start to the term are already facing hard tradeoffs as campus residents receive positive coronavirus diagnoses. Some law schools on urban campuses — like Harvard Law School in Massachusetts, the University of California–Berkeley School of Law in California and Florida A&M University College of Law — preemptively moved fall classes online.
Basic elements of legal education like large lectures, public clinics, study-abroad programs and campus housing are in flux. Accordingly, applicants should expect to be unable to visit law school campuses in person at least until 2021. Many law school admissions offices are offering virtual tours, information sessions and other campus events.
Tested by Frustration
After canceling the March test, the Law School Admission Council, commonly known as the LSAC, moved all LSATs within the U.S. to a remotely proctored and abridged three-section format called LSAT-Flex. LSAT-Flex will replace the LSAT at least through October and likely through the fall. Updates are available on the LSAC website here.
Students should prepare for the LSAT-Flex just as they would for the digital LSAT, which has been in place since 2019. They should also familiarize themselves with the format and instructions, and ensure access to a quiet space with a reliable internet connection.
While LSAC deserves credit for adapting quickly to an unprecedented situation, the LSAT-Flex has had glitches. Most seriously, the program lost the scores of about 140 July test-takers, which LSAC is working to resolve. Perhaps because of such difficulties, LSAC has suspended limits on repeat testing, so applicants have little reason not to register for and take the LSAT more than once.
State bars have taken varying and inconsistent responses to the pandemic, as tracked online by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Many have delayed or canceled tests, often with scant notice. In general, the urbanized states with larger legal markets have combined some form of remote proctoring with a delayed exam date in late September or early October. If the threat of the pandemic does not abate, further delays and frustrations may be inevitable.
Is This a Good Time to Apply to Law School?
When more people are unemployed, more people take the LSAT and apply to law school. During the Great Recession, the number of LSAT test-takers increased more than 20% from 2007 to 2009. Current LSAC data shows applications up only 0.4% from the 2019-2020 admissions cycle ending July 31, 2019, when they were 3.3% higher than the prior year. Before that, there was a sizeable “Trump bump” in law school applications from 2016 to 2018.
Many applicants reason that they can ride out a recession through three years of law school and enter a recovering job market. Law school is too expensive and time-consuming to simply serve as a fallback, but the timing may make sense for applicants genuinely interested in a legal career.
Pandemic Impact on the Job Market
While the coronavirus pandemic may be incalculably tragic, it should have limited long-term impact on the legal field. Unlike the Great Recession, which was caused by structural weaknesses in the finance markets, a recession due to reduced economic activity during a public health crisis could be more short-lived.
So far, many law firms have responded to the pandemic with pay cuts, furloughs of administrative staff and other cost-cutting measures. Few law firms or law jobs have disappeared, unlike during the Great Recession.
In fact, lawyers are more needed than ever in a post-COVID-19 world. America’s triple crises of illness, economic downturn and racial injustice have exposed structural problems requiring legal solutions, from health care disparities to police reforms to the fragility of small businesses. The global scope of the pandemic has also revealed the dangers inherent in an increasingly complex and multilayered world. There is plenty to keep lawyers busy.
Still, for the time being, law firms nationwide are urging employees to work from home, avoid travel and limit physical contact. Courts are cutting back oral arguments and operating with reduced hours, and detention centers are restricting visits. Legal practice is social by nature, but the pandemic and economic slowdown are likely to amplify trends toward remote work, contract hiring and automation to reduce costs.
Law students and applicants have reason to feel frustrated about the pandemic and concerned about the next several months. However, the generation of lawyers that weathers this storm will have immense work ahead to safeguard and strengthen the rule of law.
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Update 08/24/20: This article has been updated with new information.