Law School Overenrollment: Advice for Applicants

Before the next law school admissions season begins, it’s a good time to take stock of a tumultuous year. The coronavirus pandemic affected law school applicants, students and graduates alike in many ways, including the largest wave of applicants since 2011.

Current statistics from the Law School Admission Council, known as LSAC, show that nearly 71,000 people applied to law school for the 2021 enrollment year, roughly a 13% increase from the prior year. Those applicants submitted nearly 481,000 law school applications in total, about a 27% increase from last year.

In sum, more people have applied to law school over the last year than any time in the last decade, and those applicants have submitted far more applications than law schools had expected.

[Read: Law School Applications Rise: What It Means for J.D. Hopefuls.]

To accommodate this surge, overwhelmed law school admissions officers worked late into the night, according to media reports. Some law schools delayed decisions, divided waitlists into extra tiers or gave applicants conflicting advice about their application status.

Oversubscribed Classes

Each year, law schools accept more applicants than they can accommodate, knowing that various admitted applicants will decline acceptance, fail to pay their seat deposit, ask to defer admission or be unable to attend due to competing opportunities or unforeseen events. A lot can change in the many months between the time applicants first apply and the start of school.

Normally, schools err on the side of caution, expecting to make up any shortfalls by admitting applicants from the waitlist. However, this year has been anything but predictable, and many schools miscalculated and accepted more students than they could accommodate.

Some schools with oversubscribed classes pleaded for accepted applicants to defer admission for one year. A few even offered financial bonuses or other incentives to deferring applicants, reminiscent of the rewards airlines offer passengers to give up their seats on overbooked flights.

Impact on Incoming Law Students

Incoming law school students should feel relieved that they missed having to take first-year classes under lockdown. While many law schools have instituted health measures like social distancing and regular COVID-19 tests, campuses are mostly returning to normal.

On the one hand, law schools may have more students than usual, which will mean increased competition for jobs, clerkships and other opportunities. On the other hand, the legal sector is generally in good shape economically, and new social justice initiatives may increase opportunities in public interest law.

However, the high demand for law school may make it harder than usual for law school students to apply to transfer schools.

[Read: How to Approach First Year of Law School if Planning a Transfer.]

Implications for New Applicants

With more applicants deferring admission, there may be slightly fewer spots open this year. But some law schools may respond to higher demand by increasing their class size.

More importantly, it’s still too early to know whether applications in the coming year will continue to increase, stay around the same level or recede.

In the past, application surges due to economic and political events like recessions and protests tended to fade quickly. Applications may decrease as the economy recovers and new jobs open up. Plus, the competitiveness of the prior cycle may scare off potential applicants.

Statistics released by LSAC show the number of LSAT test-takers between July 2020 and June 2021 rose by about 36% from the year before, which could indicate a larger applicant pool for fall 2022 admission. However, the increase may be explained by the cancellation of tests in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of online, remotely proctored tests.

Applicants concerned about competition may want to keep an eye on LSAC statistics over the coming months, as well as any changes in the median GPA and LSAT scores released by the law schools they are targeting.

[See: 13 Law Schools With the Highest LSAT Scores.]

However, admissions trends can be easy to misread. It is best for applicants to focus on steps they can take to better their odds.

Since law school applications are rolling, it is ideal to apply early in the season, like September or October. If LSAT scores are a concern, develop a consistent, multi-month study plan and anticipate retaking the test if needed.

Finally, be sure to apply to a large range of law schools, including several where your grades and test scores would make you highly competitive.

Even if the future is uncertain, you can ensure your applications are as strong as possible by starting now.

More from U.S. News

13 Tips to Build a Strong Law School Application

Law School Admissions Process: A Month-By-Month Guide

How to Decide Whether to Attend a Lower-Ranked Law School

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