Overbooked law schools are trying to induce some students to put off enrolling.

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U.S.|Overbooked law schools are trying to induce some students to put off enrolling.


A balloon arch at the law school on the Duke University campus in Durham, N.C., last month.
Credit...Travis Dove for The New York Times

Amelia Nierenberg

June 16, 2021

Many American law schools are facing a problem, brought on in part by the coronavirus pandemic: They have accepted too many students for the fall. Some schools are now offering incentives to put off enrolling.

Interest in going to law school and other professional schools usually rises during economic recessions, when many people find their careers interrupted. The pandemic has been no exception — out of 200 American law schools surveyed by the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT test, 190 saw an increase in application volume.

On top of the economic effect, deans and experts say the tumult of the presidential election and the social justice protests over the past year have probably also encouraged more applications.

But the coronavirus changed something else as well: the LSAT. During the pandemic, prospective students have taken a shorter version of the test online with fewer sections than before, and lockdowns have provided more time to study with fewer distractions. And many students performed better: LSAC reported that the number of people getting top scores of 175 to 180 doubled in 2021 from the year before, and those in the next highest range, 170 to 174, rose by half.

“You can see a scenario where anxiety is much lower when you’re at home,” said Mike Spivey, the founder of Spivey Consulting. “I don’t think the test questions were any easier.”

That made for a glut of top-tier applicants to law schools — and threw off the schools’ calculations about how many would take the offer if they were accepted.

To ease the load, many schools have sent out emails to accepted students, promising that scholarships would still be there for them if they chose to defer enrollment. (Hint, hint.) Others are going further with financial incentives.

Duke has promised $5,000 to students who accepted a “binding deferral,” a pledge to attend next year. The University of Colorado Law School tried the same amount and got only two takers — but to its relief, a few dozen have chosen not to enroll for other reasons, leaving it with a more manageable class of about 180.

“If things had gotten very scary, the option obviously could have been to increase the bonus amount,” said Kristine Jackson, the assistant dean of admissions and financial aid.

Columbia University also dangled money in front of some students: $30,000 to join a newly minted “Exploration Fellowship” if they deferred. The school prioritized recent graduates and offered some career placement help.

It wasn’t enough to persuade Molly Lu, 23, a student from Toronto. She aspires to a job at a major corporate law firm, which can carry a starting salary of $200,000, and right now she is making minimum wage at a swimming pool supply store.

“The opportunity cost of a year of lawyering compared to a year of selling, like, pool floaties?” she said. “That’s too much to be overcome.”

For students, overenrollment could mean a diluted law school experience, with packed lecture halls, overburdened professors and swamped administrative staff, ending in a crowded job market when they graduate in 2024.

“If the economy is strong, it won’t be a big deal,” Mr. Spivey said. “If the economy is down, it’s going to be a huge deal.”

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