Deferring in the age of COVID-19

As we look further into the summer and fall at the possible ways our world could change in the face of continued social distancing, we are receiving more and more questions about deferring admission to law school for a year. Two ideas generally drive those questions: the possibility that the fall 2020 semester may be taught through online classes (which we have a podcast on here) and the impact of the economic volatility on career prospects. The decision about deferring is a personal one, nor do we suggest it is the right one for everyone, but we do want to provide some ways to think through that decision.  

Will the school you plan to attend offer deferrals?

There is no blanket deferral policy for all law schools; some schools are incredibly flexible with deferral requests, while others are not. You want to research the school where you plan to enroll to find out:

  1. What is the deadline to submit a deferral request? (Note that this may be much earlier than you think, as early as May 1)
  2. Are there requirements or restrictions about what I will do during that year?
  3. What happens to my scholarship if I defer?

Will a school let me defer after their stated deadline?

Schools are typically more likely to offer deferrals to the admits who request one before their deposit deadline. Depending on the school, some may be less willing to entertain deferral requests after their stated deadline. This means that you will likely need to decide if you want to enroll this fall before the decision is made about classes being held on campus or online.  

What should I do during a deferral if I take one?

This is important. Your deferral year will be part of your resume as you apply for jobs. You do not want a full year of nothing substantial on your resume leading up to law school. Do you have a job, volunteer opportunity, or additional educational opportunity that you will be able to do? If not, do you expect to find one while social distancing is in place and many companies have implemented hiring freezes? Rather than asking the question, why would I not want to enroll this fall (online classes, economy, etc.), ask yourself the question: what do I gain by enrolling a year from now? This question also gets to the heart of what schools want to know when you request a deferral — saying “I want to take a year off to work in community organizing” is far more likely to get your deferral granted than just saying “I want to take a year off because I don’t want to take classes online.”

Are online classes inevitable?

No. Law schools are weighing many difficult factors that will contribute to their decision to remain online or to hold classes on campus. Each school will make independent decisions about their classes (and you may even see schools within the same university do different things based on each school’s population). It’s too early for schools to decide what they will do, but they are creating plans in case they do need to keep courses online for longer and are also having discussions about how to keep them on campus safely, too. We have been keeping track of this decision-making process at an incredibly attentive level, not just for law schools but for colleges as well. We will have a second part of a podcast in this series up the first part of May on your YouTube channel.

Will I be at a disadvantage if I start 1L year online?

No. You will be in the exact same boat as your entire class at your school. Which means you are not disadvantaged over your peers. We have spoken to many former clients who are currently finishing their semesters online and, for the most part, the reports are that the first couple of weeks were shaky as everyone found themselves in a new environment, but it is now mostly working well and they are acclimating to how online courses flow. By the fall, professors will have had time to figure out a syllabus that takes into consideration the opportunities and issues online courses present.

The social dynamic will be different. Starting a new school without in-person interaction with your professors and classmates is probably less exciting. Study groups will be different, but will still exist. Student organizations will also engage in different ways, but will still exist. But we know that everyone is aiming towards this being a temporary solution if they have to do it, so that on-campus, in-person engagement will still happen, just a bit later.

Finally, this will go down as the year of coronavirus. When firms are reviewing your resumes, they will know this was the year of online courses at that school. As you are being compared to your classmates, you all will have had the same opportunities. Career Service Offices will be working with you to ensure that you remain competitive in the hiring process. Also an interesting note to consider: as BigLaw hiring partners contemplate how online classes should be evaluated, many have suggested that they are looking forward to seeing how students do in that remote environment since it may become a new normal in legal practice.

Are my career prospects going to be different if I enroll in fall of 2020 vs. fall of 2021?

This is the $190,000 question for many, and understandably so; economic volatility is definitely a factor to consider. Some believe the downturn may be globally protracted and, thus, deferring could actually increase career prospects as it will buy students an extra year for the recovery. Given the blend of political, economic, and public health factors at play, it’s impossible to know what the future will hold for class sizes at large firms, clerkship opportunities, non-profit funding, and a host of recruiting-related considerations in between. There may already be some class-size contraction going on in the market as firms pushed for schools to move OCI so they’d have a better sense of personnel needs before recruiting. How extensive — and long-lasting — any contraction is depends on the above variables, as well as the particular position of the firm in the market and the adaptability of firm leadership. Controlling the controllable is always a sound approach in the face of such uncertainty: consider how you can perform as well as possible in class, learn as much as you can about fields of interest, connect to attorneys who can become champions for you in the recruiting process, and treat your job search like another class whenever you do matriculate.

Much like the question of choosing the deferral option, a strategic way to approach this question is in the affirmative: if I attend school this fall, what can I do to maximize opportunities; or, if I bet on a better economy in a 2021 start, what will I do in the interim to enhance my recruiting opportunities?

If I don't get a deferral, should I wait and reapply?

There are reasons to believe that next cycle may be more competitive than this cycle for admissions. Often people flock to grad school during economic downturns, the election will end in November leaving many campaign workers ready to take their next career step, many others may be considering reapplying as well, and there may be larger numbers of deferred students already taking up space in the class, leaving less space for new admits. So you should not assume that if you turn down the offers you received this year, you will end up with the same offers next year. Also, your resume will be reviewed so you will similarly want a plan for what you will be doing over the coming year.

There are a lot of "what ifs" and volatility that make it extremely hard to know how the chips will fall. If I had to make the choice about deferring or not, it would depend on what I thought I would do over the next year and whether I felt I could be productive or do something interesting.