How will COVID-19 impact law school admissions?

One of the biggest questions facing legal education — in addition to whether to open campuses this fall — is the impact of COVID 19 on admissions.

Do prospective students want to go full-steam ahead?

Or wait a year — or even longer? 

PreLaw Magazine recently held a virtual summit for pre-law adviors — Law School Admissions in a Time of Challenge & Change — and law school deans addressed the pandemic’s impact on admissions.

Deans at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law in Philadelphia, UCLA School of Law, and Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. agreed that legal education is changing for the better. Schools are listening and adjusting to student concerns, adapting to a new normal and being creative in their approaches when it comes to making a law degree an attractive option. 

“You may think this is not a good time for law school and it will be a different time for law school, but in ways that many of us had not expected,” said Daniel Filler, dean of Drexel Law. 

“We’re seeing changes for the good that makes aspects of this program amongst the most exciting and most effective years of legal education,” 

That’s showing in the admissions’ numbers, with applications up. That’s the case, even though promoting schools is not easy in the age of COVID-19. One of the biggest changes is the inability for prospective students to visit the campus in-person.

“One of the many difficulties that prospective students face was and still is the inability to visit law schools,” said Robert Schwartz, UCLA Law’s dean of admissions. “I always advise prospective students that there is no substitute for a visit. And now they have no choice but to meet us virtually.” 

UCLA recently announced it would be entirely online in the fall, one of more than 30 law schools to make that move. Schwartz said he was worried there would be a lot of deferral requests, but that has not been the case. 

“Interestingly enough, we are getting requests from applicants if they can still apply,” Schwartz said in late July. “They planned to work a gap year or two after college but these folks are unable to find work and so they are deciding to get going with law school.”

Schwartz said 39% of schools extended their application deadline and a large majority of law schools said they would accept one of the May or June LSAT Flex for fall enrollment. 

In June, 173 law schools responded to a survey and indicated that they did not project any changes to their enrollment. 

“Specifically, 52% indicated that their projected enrollment in the fall of 2020 would be the same as the fall of 2019,” Swartz said. “And another 19% indicated that enrollment would actually be larger than last year. So, at least as of June, the indication was that COVID was not going to impact law school enrollment.”

The survey showed that students are concerned about the upcoming admission cycle, fearing that it will be more competitive either because students admitted this year will defer a year.

“In the survey, only about 27%, or about 46 schools, experiencing that phenomena,” Schwartz said. “So, I think you can reassure prospective students going into the coming cycle that it is not likely that there is going to be a significant increase in the number of seats already being taken as they apply to law school.” 

Another impact related to the pandemic is a concern about how students are going to pay for law school. Schwartz said that’s always a legitimate concern, but he is getting a lot more questions from students on scholarship and financial aid information. 

“Yet despite that, in the current survey, 70% of the schools said their scholarship budget would remain the same as last year and another 19% said their budget was actually decreased so despite this concern, it does seem there is significantly more scholarship spending happening out there,” Schwartz said. 

The deans explained how and why they are moving forward with or without in-person classes this fall. 

Anthony Niedwiecki, president and dean of Mitchell Hamline, said the online resources the school has available made his decision to go entirely online much easier.  

“With the increase in cases across the country and the increases of cases and the positivity rate of cases here in Minnesota, I wanted to be as safe as possible and decided to go fully online.”

Mitchell Hamline was the first law school in the country to offer an online JD program. The hybrid version allows students to complete half of their classes online and half on campus. 

“So Mitchell Hamline had the resources and the experience already at the school to be able to transition into online teaching pretty easily,” Neidweicki said.

Drexel is opening its campus this fall — with many safety precautions in place. 

“At Drexel, we’re cleaning like crazy,” Filler said. “We’re reconfiguring classes – for many of our students the schedules have been tweaked to make it possible to deliver the programs they want with face-to-face or online so that the timing will work, We’re creating new rules - obviously mask rules but we’re also looking at new rules around exams because we need to find a way to have creditable, reliable, honest exams in a world where we may not be able to proctor the way we used to."

Most law schools are taking one of two approaches. They are going entirely online or offering hyflex classes — where students can choose whether to attend in person or online.  

“I am excited because we are actually thinking through how to do things a little bit differently,” Niewdweicki said. “Law schools tend to have an image of being conservative in their approach on how they do things and that they’re resistant to change. But what I have seen over the last four, five, six months is that we’ve had to change, and it has opened people eyes and minds to so many different ways of doing things that maybe will become permanent parts of law school.”

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