If you’re planning to apply to law school in this upcoming cycle, you’ve probably seen a recent (and ongoing) surge of analyses of the last cycle, and predictions about the next. I’m wading into these waters not to make any earth-shattering forecasts, but rather to explain why they matter very little for you as an individual applicant. Spoiler: your chances of admission this year are roughly the same as last year and roughly the same as they would be if you held off and applied in a year or two or three. The best thing you can do right now is NOT get caught up in all that online speculation, but rather spend that time and energy on making your application package the best it can be.
Here’s the longer version:
Application volume this past year went back down to where it had been for a couple years prior to what we can now confidently refer to as the Pandemic Spike in Applications. Here’s the chart:
The graph represents the week-by-week application volume over the last few months of the admissions cycles for each of the last 5 years. The numbers on the right indicate the total number of applicants for each of those cycles by the end of July. As you can see, after a one-year spike to 70,000+ applicants in the 2020-21 cycle, the overall volume has gone back down this past cycle to the 62,000 range, virtually the same as in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Those years represented a modest increase from 60,000 in 2017-18 (and a slightly larger increase from the five prior years, which were all in the high 55,000-60,000 range). The graph further supports the theory that this was a pandemic-related spike, by showing the late-cycle sudden increase in applications for the end of the 2019-20 season, i.e., just when it became clear that the COVID disruption was going to last well into the next year. The assumption here is that folks who had been thinking about applying to law school, but perhaps weren’t quite sure, opted to apply because the economic future looked bleak. Professional and graduate school applications almost always go up when job prospects go down.
What does this mean for the coming cycle? Early indicators (e.g., LSAT volume) point toward a further decline in applications. But who knows, really? This time last year, folks thought it would be a really tough application cycle, thanks to a number of factors, including LSAT volume, and those predictions turned out to be wrong. Indeed, last cycle started off hot, and then cooled off dramatically.
Here’s the thing, though: application volume only matters to you as an applicant if it’s going to tell you something useful about your chances of admission. So let’s turn to admission rates. At the national level, overall admission rates — the percent of applicants gaining admission to one or more law schools — have ranged from roughly 68% to 78% over the last 10 years. For UMass Amherst grads, the rates ranged from roughly 80% to 90% over that same period. During that pandemic spike year, our admission rate was about 85% (nationally, it was about 68%). We won’t know the 2021-22 admission rates for a few more months when the final enrollment numbers come in.
In short: if you’re applying to law school from UMass Amherst, you have a really, really good chance of admission, whether it’s a high volume year or a low volume year. If you’re applying to law school from anywhere, you still have a very good chance of admission (as compared to, say, med school, where overall admission rates hover around 40%). In general, the competitiveness of the admission cycle is relatively stable year after year. Does it vary more at particular law schools? Sure, but still within a relatively narrow range for that particular school. The most selective law schools are still pretty selective, and the least selective schools much less so. Unless you’re a data nerd, or you’re trying to increase anxiety about the admissions process, it really doesn’t matter much though — overall competitiveness is relatively stable year after year.
Okay, but does higher applicant volume result in a more competitive job market down the road? Definitely maybe. If you’re applying to law school in Fall 2022, you’re wondering about what the job market will look like when you graduate from law school in 2026. Certainly, one of the factors that would play into that job market is the number of law grads relative to the number of jobs available. We can know roughly what the first will look like, but we really have only a limited idea of what the latter will look like. Legal employment has proved relatively stable over the last 30-40 years, with occasional shorter-term blips (the Great Recession being the most notable in recent history). That said, the number of unpredictable things that could happen to significantly impact the job market between now and 2026 is impossible to even count, and the nature of those possible events and their impacts impossible to describe. Think about the unpredicted job-market-impacting-events of the last 20-odd years: the dot-com bust, 9/11, the Great Recession, the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Your lifetime alone provides you with ample evidence that any predictions I — or even trained economists — would make about the legal job market in 2026 are educated (more or less) hunches at best.
But again, this uncertainty plays out against a backdrop of relative stability — in law school admissions and in the legal job market.
So what should you be doing to increase your chances of admission this coming year and your chances of satisfying employment a few years from now?
- Don’t waste time on following the forecasting websites and posts. Predictions about application volume should not play a role in your decision about when or whether to apply to law school. Whatever variation occurs will have little to no actionable impact on your applications. Getting caught up in those predictions will only distract you — perhaps in a stress-inducing way — from spending time on making your application package better.
- Do spend time making your application package as strong as it can be. Better application packages — essays, test scores, etc. — lead to better admissions outcomes. Importantly, it’s the one thing in this process you have utterly within your control.
- In the long term, be the best person, law student, lawyer, and citizen you can be. You don’t have much control over job markets, the broader economy, or those unpredictable events that are certain to come our way in the future. But you do have control over who you are and how you react to the unforeseen. Interpersonally, be kind and people will think highly of you when hiring time comes. In the big picture, foster a belief in democracy and the rule of law — both because lawyers have a special role to play in both, but also because a functioning and fair legal system is necessary for lawyers to thrive.
For more on how strengthen every aspect of your application package, check out our Applying to Law School pages.
For more on reducing the stress of the admissions process, check out our Stress Management pages.
And if you’re a UMass student or alum, never hesitate to reach out to your friendly neighborhood pre-law advisor with any specific questions or concerns.