Podcast: The Slowest Cycle Ever

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike discusses the reasons that this law school admissions cycle will be the slowest one ever (or at least within our admissions careers)—and, perhaps more importantly, what you should do about it if you're a current applicant.

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on ⁠⁠Apple Podcasts⁠⁠⁠⁠Spotify⁠⁠⁠⁠Stitcher⁠⁠⁠⁠YouTube⁠⁠, and ⁠⁠Google Podcasts⁠⁠.

Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. If you saw the title, you're probably here for admissions. The slowest cycle ever. Well, who knows, right? Because I wasn't around in 1906 doing law school admissions. So I don't know about ever, but we do know, and we have known for a good while now, that this cycle is going to be slow.

The reasons why it's going to be slow keep, it seems like almost on a monthly basis, getting added upon and added upon. So I'm going to give you five major reasons, and you'll see what I mean by reason one, and then a couple moments later, a second reason. And these things have compounded to a level of which I've never seen, which is why we titled this the slowest cycle ever, because we see it trending in this direction even as more changes come in, more data comes in.

First thing that happened was U.S. News & World Report, under steep pressure from law schools—I hate the word boycotting, but not providing the private data to U.S. News. U.S. News had to change the methodology and they doubled down on outcomes. Not necessarily a bad thing. And when you add to a metric, you have to borrow some weight from another metric or entirely cut out metrics. They did both, but they borrowed a lot of weight from the admissions metrics. That's a good way of wording it. I keep saying eviscerated, but a better way of thinking of it is they borrowed a hefty amount of weight from the admissions metrics. What does that mean? Admissions officers are trying to grapple with what is our role in this grand scheme. Obviously, we want to bring in a qualified class that fits in well, that knows what they're doing. But the pressures of us hitting target medians vis-a-vis ranking results, I can't emphasize this enough. In a vacuum, the U.S. News pressures on emissions are almost null and void now. Admissions was going to go slow from the get-go to see what they were going to do with financial aid, merit scholarship money versus putting it in other areas such as student-funded jobs for employment outcomes.

We knew that months ago, March and April. And then the SCOTUS SFFA decision came down, which in a nutshell, it undid Grutter v. Bollinger. And what that means is, as a stand-alone, law schools can no longer consider race as a stand-alone in the admissions process. It still can be part of the whole portfolio of the application, we're going to get back to that, but ever since the Grutter decision, which has gone on now for many, many years, race and race-conscious admissions decisions have been part of the job of the admissions office. And when I was in admissions, I went to a conference a year on this. How do we bring in a diverse class? How do we recruit diverse students? And that was part and parcel of the application. SCOTUS rendered their decision, and quite frankly before that, because we all knew what direction it was going to come in, law schools knew that they were going to have to change their long-standing applications. Minor changes every year. Major changes hardly any year. This year, major changes to almost every law school application I've seen, I'm going to get back to this in a second. That was reason number two, the SCOTUS decision.

Reason number three was the LSAT virtual test crashing, two tests in a row. LSAC isn't telling anyone how many people were impacted. We know it was a substantial number. I have some disagreement with my rankings and data expert, Justin Kane, about whether this will impact only the early part of the cycle or the entire cycle. I tend to think it's going to have a tail impact throughout the cycle. But regardless, Justin and I are in complete agreement that if your virtual LSAT or even your registration, which there were some issues with. were completely thrown asunder due to the proctor not showing up, you not being able get into the test, etc. Or if you just had a bully proctor, and we hear more and more stories about this, and your score was a lot lower than your diagnostic scores, then yeah, you're going to retake, you're going to test again. That's obviously going to slow down the cycle if you thought you were going to use a June score and now you're using an October or January score.

That was reason number three. Back to when I alluded to the applications, this is interesting because schools had to redo their applications. And there's no reason for many people listening to this, if you're applying this cycle, to know this. Because it's not like you were interested in what a law school application has looked like in previous years. But I've been doing this for 25 years. Some of my closest friends in the world are admissions officers and deans of admissions and deans of law schools who have been doing this for 20, 25, 30 years. And this is unlike anything we've ever seen as far as the diversity of application questions. So they're much less uniform intra-schools, so between the different schools. And then inter-school, inside the school, for many schools, they're much more lengthy. What does a more diverse array of questions do? It slows you down, the applicant. You can't just submit a more standard application, think about the Common App in undergrad admissions.

So that slows down your process. What does this do for the school itself? Well, they're having to go a lot more slowly. New questions, more words, more reading. I haven't been an admissions officer in a while, but I'm thinking some of my friends are reading applications until midnight day after day, welcome to Biglaw. Without the Biglaw pay. So this will slow down the process for a good long while, up until about the waitlist period where all this stuff should really compress and things should pop a lot quicker. You don't have to read an application twice. You can read the notes you took on the application.

And then finally, we have another variable, and this was being talked about on Reddit recently. You have the cycle data, don't worry about applications. It’s really applicants. Because someone can only go to one school. If I was an applicant, the first thing I would look at is, where are current applicants? And they're down 3.5%. And then I would start looking at the LSAT score bands.

But here's where it gets interesting. Most law schools know the following, which you may or may not know, the applicants are out there. even though the applicants are down 3.5%. Test registrants were up, and there are enough applicants out there that I think is really going to cause admissions officers to say, what is this disconnect between the applicants out there in the void, but the applicants who have submitted and applied through LSAC, which is where we all get this data, which is down 3.5%. And in total, I think a lot of schools can reconcile this difference. We know these applicants exist somewhere. They took the LSAT, they started an application, but they haven't applied yet. Are they deciding not to go to law school? Which is going to be slowing things down for those particular law schools. Uncertainty in the data is certainly going to slow it down.

So let me just recap and then start maybe offering some help. Five reasons: the U.S. News rankings metric change, which really diminished input metrics, the SCOTUS decision. The LSAT virtual administration crashing, not once, but twice. I hadn't thought of this until it just popped in my head right now, but this could have admissions officers questioning is it going to happen again? Let's go slowly. Maybe not. I haven't talked to a friend of mine in admissions about this. The applicant question length and diversity of, applicant questions and then the sort of a little bit surprising early data. The early data isn't surprising and early data is always highly volatile. So I'm not so much going off of the early data. It's just the disconnect between the early data showing down and us knowing that there are applicants out there that haven't applied yet and scratching our heads why. Previously, usually when applicants were ready to apply, they just applied. I'm not saying that's a bad idea either. I think it's always the best idea to apply with a strong application. But previously, people raced to apply.

If I were talking to you one on one, we're having coffee and your question is “all right how do I use this information to my advantage in the cycle?” I guess I would say a couple things. One is if you have another LSAT score in you where you think you can score higher, there's certainly no rush to apply. Don't listen to people who confuse correlation with causation. You're going to get a few people out there who get limited data on websites that show past years and say, oh my god, you get an early bump for applying early. That's really not the case at the individual level. At the macro level, as we've said for many years as a firm, you see a little bit of an early bump. Admissions bump, that's the correlation, not the causation. I'll give you an example. We know smoking kills people. We know smoking gives people lung cancer. I can't do a lab study where I make people smoke a heck of a lot of cigarettes a day for many years, and then control all the other variables going in and say, okay, my study proves this. But what we can do is look at the epidemiological macro data, and it's just so compelling. On the opposite end of the spectrum when you're looking at self-reported law school data, you really aren't parsing out correlation with causation. Long story short being I get sick of someone thinking they're an admissions expert misleading the market and stomping their feet and screaming at the top of their voice, you have an 80% chance if you apply in September and a 20% chance if you apply in November. No one who's ever done admissions would ever even consider that as a statement that makes any sense. So don't worry so much about the timing. Even prior to this cycle, your best application always mattered. If you have a better LSAT score in you, if you can score better, if you can put together a better application. November, December is completely fine. If you're taking the January LSAT, you're completely fine. The vast majority of admits this cycle will go out in 2024. I know that as well as I know that the sky is blue above me today.

The other thing I would say is when you start seeing people chime in, hey, I don't like to use real school names, so we'll say admit from Princeton. It's human nature to be like, oh my god, a huge Princeton wave must have gone out, and I wasn't in that wave. The big waves are going to go out. And you may see an interesting phenomenon in this cycle where there are smaller waves throughout. This is called managing the data. I mean, This is what I did when I was in admissions. We didn't do big waves. When I was at Vanderbilt, we did small waves so that on a daily basis we could manage the data.

And I'll maybe end on this note. I see more law schools this cycle with all of these question marks. What are we going to do with our merit aid? When are we going to give it out? Where's the data heading? Where are the applicants heading? How many people take future tests? Will the virtual LSAT crash again? Etc. I think you'll see more schools managing the data by doing smaller waves of admits. Not all schools, of course. And I think knowing that is really important because if you're not in the November wave or the December wave, guess what? There's going to be a January, February, March, April, May wave. And then you're going to see the shotgun waitlist admits. Final point, this might sound shocking, I'll be the first to admit I could be wrong. If I had to guess, I would guess for a large number of schools, at least 50% of their admits come off the waitlist. Let me repeat that. At least 50% of their admits come off the waitlist. Because a lot of the admits, the smaller number of admits they're doing before waitlist period, are going to end up turning them down and they're going to have to go to the waitlist more and more and more again, particularly in a slow cycle. And this could be the slowest cycle that we've ever seen in our firm's 220 years of experience.

Certainly, I think it's going to be the slowest cycle I've ever seen in my 25 years of experience. This was Mike Spivey, the Spivey Consulting Group.