Podcast: Will Law Schools Be Able to Maintain Their Medians This Cycle?

In this episode, Mike predicts whether law schools will be able to maintain their high medians from last year, and how we expect that to play out across the course of the cycle. He also discusses how this will impact splitters and reverse splitters.

You can find the spreadsheet Mike mentions in this podcast with schools' medians from the 2020-2021 cycle here.

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Full Transcript:

Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school — today, we're going to focus entirely on law school admissions in this current 2021-2022 cycle, based on a question from Reddit. My favorite question was, “I would like a prediction on my exact admissions results and decision dates from every school.” Someone else wanted the same thing, but for them, but since those weren't the most upvoted, I'm going to go to the most upvoted question, which was, “Splitters — are class size is going to shrink this year to retain medians? How ambitious are T14 LSAT targets this cycle, given the data?”

Well, I have a good sense for how ambitious schools are, but it's not so much based on the current data, but just knowing people and knowing the thought processes of these. I'll also talk about reverse splitters.

So let's first talk about the cycle. As of yesterday, 11/9/2021, applications are up 2.7% versus the previous cycle. That's going to come down. By the end of this cycle, that's going to be a negative number, I would bet — I mean, obviously I don't know for a fact, but I would bet a lot of money that this cycle will be down in number of applications.

But what I think people are really clicking on is when you look at the bandwidths. The bandwidth, already, 175 to 180 is down 21.5% per LSAC. Spivey Consulting calculates these a little differently, and I'm not going to go into the nuances, but at this point it's very similar. The bandwidth 170 to 174 is down 4.4%, 165 to 169 down 2.6%. And you even see 160 to 164, it's only up 3%. These have all been dropping since the start of the cycle.

The reason why I all but know that 2.7% increase in applicants is going to turn into a negative is because this was a very front-loaded cycle. A lot of people who didn't get the results in last cycle, the hardest, most difficult cycle in the history of law school admissions, reapplied this cycle. A lot of people who were going to apply last cycle who were a little bit later in the process said, “Wow, this thing is looking like a disaster. We're going to wait it out.” So there were a lot of applications at the front end, yet we're still down 165 to 180 in those LSAT bandwidths.

Okay, I'm going to slow down for a second. What does this all mean for all of you all? Let me first touch on the splitter side of the equation. Last year not only was historic in respect to the number of people applying — which wasn't a historic, actually, that was not a historic high, but it was historic in respect to the distribution of the LSAT at the top — what that also produced very predictably was the historic returns for law schools. So you can see on our spreadsheet, if you go to our blog, Spivey Consulting Blog. If you go through our several pages, we have linked a spreadsheet to the school-reported medians. These will be double checked and verified when 509s come out in a month. But just about every school is either up or flat. I think there's only one school which is down.

So the range, which incidentally I predicted so this sounds immodest, but I'm a little bit happy right now. The range was -1 to +4, which I think this summer I predicted on a podcast, but what I couldn't have predicted is there's only one -1, and there's not that many zeros in most schools. So, you know, I would have been wrong if someone had started asking me follow-up questions. Most schools are a +1/+2, and there's a number of schools +3/+4, which you never really see. There's two schools in the top 20 that are +3 LSAT, which you know, again, is just unprecedented, once in a lifetime, I would guess, once in my lifetime. You all are going to live a lot longer, you might see it one more time.

So I think people are asking the right question, and I think people on Reddit are smart. What I think people were wondering is, “Okay, these schools went up to 174 median LSAT, or they went up from 169 to 172, 173 or whatever, aren't they going to want to keep those?” This is where things get a little bit nuanced. From a psychological perspective the answer is yes, of course. If you're a Dean of Admission or a Dean of a law school and all of a sudden you had a 169 LSAT and you have a 172 LSAT, of course, you're going to want to keep that. It looks good. It looks like improvement. Improvement for your school gets alumni with giving potential excited. It moves you up in the rankings, and when you move in the rankings, things just get a little bit easier. I mean, I hate to say it like that, but it's true. It's still difficult running a law school. It's just easier when you're moving up versus moving back. So yes, they're going to want to keep their medians.

So then the question becomes, “Okay, well, Spivey, okay, we get it. They want to. Can they?” The only way they're going to be able to keep them is if they by and large reduce class sizes. There will not be the raw numbers at the top end to keep these one-cycle changes unless they reduce class sizes.

So then the question becomes, can they reduce class sizes? I would argue that a number of schools in the top 30 to 50 might have another year or two of redline budget revenue versus expenses, keeping in mind that almost every law school dean came from the academic world. They're not business people, they don't have shareholders. And lots of deans of law schools over my 22 years are comfortable with coming in in the red, not in the black, in terms of finances.

What's going to happen in a few years — this won't relate to anyone listening to this, unless you're oddly listening to this three years from now, which means you must be a huge fan of wonky data — three or four years from now, all of this is going to change because of the demographic cliff and a number of colleges going under and a number of colleges with law school severely struggling financially. But I don't think that will psychologically impact law schools this year that much.

So, yes, I think that schools — again, that have money to spend, that aren’t entirely tuition-driven and can afford to be in the red with their provost and their chancellor or president — I think they're going to reduce class sizes. And what's going to be interesting to follow out, I can't give anyone an answer here, but what's going to be fascinating to follow is, does that ability to reduce class sizes stay in symmetry with these falling LSAT numbers at the top? And my best guess, and here's the best news of this entire mealy-mouthed podcast, is “no.” The LSAT scores are going to fall more so than the ability of schools to reduce class sizes. By and large. Not every school. And again, I can't speak to individual schools. I wish I could, but I can't.

So by and large, I don't think schools will be able to reduce class sizes enough to maintain their substantial LSAT median gains from last cycle. There's also an incredibly nuanced part to all of this, which is LSAT medians, even though they're ranked a little bit higher in U.S. News & World Report percentages metrics than GPA, they have diminishing returns unlike GPA. The higher up you get in the LSAT for your median, the less it contributes to your overall raw score.

Last year, I think around a 171, 172, you almost had no returns for LSAT scores getting higher. You saw some schools figure this out. They put a hard stop on the LSAT around a 170, 171 and they jacked up their GPA to a 3.9 or 3.93 even. That's a school that's figured out, like we have, the regression model, has reverse engineered the U.S. News & World Report regression model. And those that they're getting more bang for their buck at that level with the GPA. That's really nuanced because I don't think — we wouldn't have a whole consulting program for law schools if they all knew that. And even the schools that do know that, there's so much pressure from the external world — applicants, faculty, alums… when you go to conferences or you meet with alums no one asks you what your median GPA is, they always say, “What's the new median LSAT?”

So schools are going to try to keep median LSATs. I think by and large most won't be able to, even if they reduce class sizes. So you'll see things like 174s drop to 173s. It's going to take a little bit more time, and early on, I think schools are going to be targeting these 173s or 174s.

I think schools have probably already figured out they're not going to go higher than last year. So I think any target medians for the vast majority of schools that were above last year’s medians, you can take off the table. I think when you look at our spreadsheet or you look at it in December after the 509s come out, I think what's going to happen is around December, January, February, most schools won't even be able to keep their current gains, even with class size reductions. And now I feel like I'm a broken record because I think I've said this six or seven times. So they're going to pivot.

So what's going to happen with this pivot? More people with an LSAT point one below what they had been targeting, probably what they had last year, is going to become very attractive. So to answer the direct question — right now, high LSAT scores should be very attractive to schools because they haven't pivoted yet. I think around December, January, February, most schools will pivot, and a point lower LSAT than the school's current median is going to become very attractive. And then also all these GPAs, they're probably having really slow cycles at most schools, so now we're talking reverse splitters are going to become much more attractive too. February, March, April are going to be the months of happy GPA, people with high GPAs, reverse splitters.

I think November, December are going to be slow months, quite frankly. Obviously, there are people out there with really high GPAs and really high LSATs. So it won't feel slow to those people. But for reverse splitters and splitters, I think this is generally going to be a slow period. We're going to have to wait. We have a great podcast with Dr. Guy Winch, whose TED Talk had 25 million views, about waiting. So you can find that on our podcast. If this is helpful, you can subscribe to our podcasts of course. I think there's like a button to click. Because we're going to revisit this, and then we're going to revisit this when I think everything starts changing, which is going to be mid-December to after the holiday break. That's when I think schools pivot, that's when I think the focus is not so scrutinizingly about LSATs, and then later in the cycle, I think there's going to be a lot of happy high GPA people.

I do want to bring up one negative, which is as follows. If a school wants to keep their median LSAT from last year or just lose one point, which is the more likely scenario, this actually makes the summer a more difficult summer to get off the waitlist if you're two points below that LSAT. You still can. But last summer was interesting because schools were so locked in with their high LSAT scores, that late in the summer they were able to take people off the waitlist who they just loved their applications, and we saw that time and time again. As long as they weren't oversubscribed — which was, to be frank, a decent number of schools — schools that needed people off the waitlist had a lot of liberty to take people who they just really liked. And we have so many blogs and podcasts on how to do your application to be really likable.

I think you're going to see a little bit less of that this summer, because I don't think schools are going to want to lose more than one median LSAT point that they gained last year. They gained two or three. They're only going to want to lose one. So there's always going to be waitlist movement every cycle, including last cycle.

I think that the waitlist movement is going to be a little bit buffered by what people were asking, and I'll end on this note, people were asking, “Are schools going to be even more compelled to look at LSAT scores?” The answer is yes. That also leads to the notion of you can apply late with a strong LSAT score. I know some firm posted a blog and did a podcast and this hit Reddit and they said, “If you don't apply in September, it's not worth applying.” That is categorically, I can't stress this enough, harmful advice. Applying in December or November with a strong LSAT score will have no different — and GPA — impact on your admit/deny decision or your merit aid decision than applying only in September. But it would, if you waited and listened to that advice, it would dramatically impact your starting salary of 150,000 or whatever, if you go to big law, 190,000 — I'm talking about the time value of money. It could very dramatically impact your psychological wellbeing. So please be very wary of online advice. Be wary about it for me! Triangulate, if I'm saying something. Listen to what Deans of Admissions are saying, but they say things wrong too or they have their own spins, understandably. So just because a Dean of Admission says, “We weigh GRE the same as LSAT,” it doesn't mean they actually do. So please, please try to triangulate every piece of advice people say online. I just see it hurting people over every cycle, and it really almost like, pains me to see people getting hurt with bad advice. I hope this podcast was good advice. I hope it answered the question. We'll do more. We'll do more of the questions in that Reddit thread.

I like very much hearing what people are curious or anxious about. I think we'll do another one on interviewing, or we might have some Dean of Admissions ask me like the most difficult admissions questions, interview questions they can and do a mock interview. So more coming. I hope this was helpful. This was Mike Spivey with the Spivey Consulting Group.