How Will COVID-19 Impact Law Schools As The Summer Progresses?

Ed. note: Please welcome Mike Spivey of the Spivey Consulting Group to our pages, where he’ll be writing about law school admissions.

First, a disclaimer. I am not an infectious disease expert or epidemiologist. If I were, I would still mostly be guessing as to the length of the global pandemic outbreak known as COVID-19. There are still more unknowns than knowns, right now. And to use a tautology, from our perspective as a firm, we don’t know what we don’t know as far as how the virus will behave or how the mitigation efforts will play out. But mitigation is a good starting point.

The first law schools closed their doors due to the virus in early March. Why was this a good thing? Well, if you put anything (biologically speaking) into an environment with no predators and unlimited resources, it will multiple indefinitely. In this case, the unlimited resources are us — humans. We put a brainteaser analogy on our website soon after such closings to illustrate how serious this can be.

With the growth factor still curving upward, where does this leave law school applicants and law school classes? First to the applicants. The March LSAT was recently canceled, and the April administration is looking precarious (for context, combined those tests had/have about 20,000 registrants). This is actually good news if you are on a waitlist at a law school and you did not plan to retake the LSAT. Why? Schools will likely not be getting an influx of either new applicants from spring LSAT exams (although this is heavily stratified by score range, with top ranked schools generally having nearly their entire applicant pool already in and lower ranked schools having closer to 80 percent, 70 percent, or even 60 percent) nor a heavy supply of retakers hoping to increase their score. Put another way — look for significant waitlist movement below the top range of schools. While we expect almost all schools to have some waitlist movement, the effects of canceled LSAT administrations will compound the lower a given school’s LSAT median.

Certainly, there is the possibility that the April LSAT will occur — LSAC is working on several options for still administering the test while practicing socially distancing. Additionally, there is now the possibility that most law schools will accept a June LSAT score or some other spring test added by LSAC. To quote one dean of admissions, “Our job is to enroll a class, not to enforce arbitrary deadlines.” It’s also possible ETS will use this opportunity to increase GRE market share in law school admissions, thanks to the unveiling of its “GRE at Home” option. Increased embrace of the GRE could somewhat mitigate the effects of canceling the spring LSAT exams. Either way, a significant swath of what would normally be applicants in this cycle’s pool (or retakers) are now not in the pool. Many schools were counting on those folks. As the summer carries on, we expect this to mean considerably more admits — especially below the 165 LSAT score-band threshold where applicants were already down this cycle.

Things get a bit trickier when you start talking about those applicants who want higher LSAT scores (“retakers,” in admissions speak), or those without scores yet at all. Without an opportunity to take an LSAT this spring, many in this group will reapply next cycle. This has real implications for the next cycle. Combine the significant possibility of a major recession, an election year, plus all of those reapplicants, and we expect applications to be up next year. It is impossible to guess how much so, and how competitive the pool will be, but we would expect a one-year “countercyclical” increase in applications before any significant information flow makes law school look like a risky investment, as happened after the financial crisis. Those entering law school in 2020 may indeed be protected from a recession; by their graduation in 2023, the economy might be back on its feet entirely. But it is impossible to say with certainty — for rising 2Ls, law firms have already been talking about moving on-campus interviews back to January or later due to hiring freeze projections. And this assumes firms will even want to send partners to campuses — which, depending on the economy or pandemic, they may not.

What about classes? Deans want to have them — people tend to be more comfortable doing what they’re used to, and there is great value to in-person education. But law school deans also tend to be lawyers, and lawyers are often predisposed to considering worst-case scenarios. In discussing this article with several law school deans, I heard time and again that the possibility of a second outbreak is on their minds. I’ve even been told that classes may get a backup professor in case the primary faculty member falls ill. Again, no one really knows. If COVID-19 lingers or comes back, we are likely looking at some number of schools going online for longer than just this spring 2020 semester.

Additionally many law schools have significant international law student populations, both in their JD programs and LLM programs. That group of students may not be able to travel without restrictions. So international students face a potentially entirely different situation. One possibility is that international students will be asked to begin school in January, but again this is speculation.

The best guess is this: applicants who applied this cycle with LSAT/GRE scores that don’t plan to retake the exams may well be favored as the summer wears on. But even this is somewhat dependent on whether  the growth curve of the epidemic nosedives such that LSAC can offer spring/summer tests. If so, a slower pace of admits is likely as law schools work to get a handle on this unique admissions cycle and what their applicant pools will end up looking like. International applicant numbers, including for non-JD granting programs, will likely greatly decrease either way.

One final issue is that of the overall economic viability of law schools. Since the Great Recession, many law schools have been underwritten by central universities. This poses a problem because universities are currently facing a much greater financial threat than law schools. As a factual matter, Moody’s Investors Service just recently downgraded the outlook on higher education as a whole from “stable” to “negative,” driven primarily by the fact that many auxiliary sources of income for universities (housing, dining, parking, athletics, etc.) and enrollments are threatened.

If law schools stop receiving university support, they will be faced with some hard choices — particularly if we become mired in a recession. Perhaps a select number will  move entirely online and lower tuition. The American Bar Association has already signaled their intention to loosen accreditation requirements for temporary online learning, and our firm is closely monitoring those developments to see if those changes become permanent. If not, and if a certain number of schools are indeed threatened due to a longer term recession, we may not be looking at just a summer of COVID-19 woes, but the complete closing of some law schools.

Mike Spivey is the founder of The Spivey Consulting Group and has been featured as an expert on law schools and law school admissions in many national media outlets, including The New York Times, The Economist, the ABA Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, U.S. News & World Report, CNN/Fortune, and Law. Prior to founding Spivey Consulting, Mike was a senior level administrator at Vanderbilt, Washington University, and Colorado law schools. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram or connect with him LinkedIn. 

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