APU Legal Studies Original

The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Mixed Impact on US Law Schools

By James J. Barney
Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies

For several generations, law school admission trends have been fairly predictable. During times of economic uncertainty, law school applications typically surge as many college students view the continuation of three or four more years of education as a safe choice while they wait out the economic turmoil.

Following historic trends, the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic downturn sparked a historic uptick in law school applications, rendering the admission process one of the most competitive for several decades. In the fall of 2021, there was talk about how law school applications have peaked and started to level off.  For example, a recent article in Reuters noted that law school applications were down 10% from their peak.

However, the current economic instability in regard to today’s inflation and a possible recession on the horizon will likely prolong COVID-19-era law school admissions trends for the near future. Anecdotally, I have noticed a considerable increase in our students’ interest in law school since the new year.

At the same time, encouraging trends in law school programming and the admissions process have emerged over the past two years and have the potential to permanently transform the law school landscape. These changes include:

  • Hybrid and accelerated degrees
  • The development of programs to help historically underrepresented populations navigate the law school admissions process
  • The possible creation of alternative admission pathways

These innovations are positive developments that eventually will provide non-traditional and historically underserved communities with more access to the legal profession.

COVID-19 Has Sparked Innovation in Law School Programs and the Law School Admissions Process

While COVID-19 and its accompanying economic downturn have made the multiyear cycle of the law school application process more competitive, COVID-19 has also sparked increased innovation in law school programs and future changes to the law school admissions process that non-traditional students should closely monitor. These trends point to a law school landscape that is more open to non-traditional and underrepresented communities.

For instance, the American Bar Association (ABA) has allowed several law schools to launch largely online programs with limited residency requirements. Law schools like Syracuse University College of Law, University of Dayton School of Law and Mitchell Hamline School of Law launched J.D. programs that have limited residency requirements before the emergence of COVID-19. For a full list of the ABA law schools with approved distance learning programs, see ABA-Approved Law Schools With Approved Distance Education J.D. Programs.

Recently, St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, received approval from the ABA to launch the first fully online J.D. program. This program will launch in the fall of 2022 with a very small cohort of students. The approval of a fully online program by the American Bar Association by an ABA-accredited law school is a transformative moment in legal education and has the potential to revolutionize law school.

These hybrid and online programs and many other programs in development will enable non-traditional students, including working adults, to attend part-time law school programs without leaving their day jobs.

In addition to online and hybrid programs, other law schools like Seton Hall Law School, Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and Touro College have used their creativity to create other varieties of hybrid programs. These hybrid programs require students to attend a collection of weekend classes.

Other law schools have launched accelerated J.D. programs to enable students to complete their law degrees in less than three years. The list of accelerated J.D. programs has increased rapidly over the past two years.

Like hybrid and online J.D. programs, an accelerated J.D. or weekend J.D. provides non-traditional students with improved access to the legal profession. They enable non-traditional students with educational options previously not available to working adults and for those unable to leave the labor market for three or more years.

In addition, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) has been promoting a series of programs for current college students to help prepare them for the law school admissions process as well as the rigors of law school. LSAC is working in partnership with the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) to promote several initiatives aimed to provide underserved communities with information and training designed to prepare students for law school and the application process.

For example, CLEO offers a weekend Achieving Success in the Application Process programs in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and San Francisco to provide traditionally underrepresented populations with tips and advice to navigate the law school application process. Similarly, CLEO offers a summer program aimed to prepare college students for law school.

Most interestingly, LSAC has started discussions about creating a series of college coursework embedded within a college student’s academic program that will supplement or act as a substitute for the current law school application process. While the details of future college programs are still in development, these additional academic programs will provide aspiring law students with a better understanding of the type of work they will confront in law school.

Also, these new programs will eventually provide students with an alternative to or a supplement to the current application process and are welcome additions to the law school landscape. These programs will not only eventually provide college students with a taste for law school’s rigor but will also allow them to self-assess whether law school fits career goals.

Related link: Why Studying Philosophy Can Be Useful for Aspiring Lawyers

Competitiveness and Innovation Are Two Products of the COVID-19 Era

While COVID-19 has resulted in increased competitiveness, COVID-19 has also sparked innovation that, in the long run, will benefit non-traditional and students from underrepresented communities. The hybrid, online, weekend, and accelerated J.D. degrees, as well as new programs to prepare aspiring law students and possible alternate pathways to law school admission, are direct products of the COVID-19 era. These innovations have the potential to permanently reshape the law school landscape to be more accommodating to students from various backgrounds, providing a ray of light in what have been three challenging years.

Related link: Podcast: The Transformative Process of Law School

James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several master’s degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy. He is also in the final stages of completing his Ph.D. in history. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club and is the pre-law advisor at the University.

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