Getting into law school is harder than ever

Getting in has never been easy. But now, it’s nearly impossible.

Laura Drake

When Kerry Kaukinen applied to law school last fall, she didn’t think the reason she’d be packing her bags in August would be to move back home.

Kaukinen, who finished a political science degree at Concordia University this spring, didn’t expect schools to fight over her—she knew her 3.4 GPA was a few points lower than the average applicant. Still, her best Law School Admission Test (LSAT) score was in the 90th percentile, and she had been a guard on the national university women’s water polo team, a 20-hour-a-week extra-curricular commitment that was sure to look good on her applications.

She got her first responses in April, and those were rejections. By mid-August, the rejections started to seem like blessings, simply because they were a straight answer. The messages she was getting from other schools were more confusing, but they all boiled down to the same thing: in any other year, yes. This year? Probably not.

Getting into law school has never been easy, but this year there has been a steeply competitive coast-to-coast rise in applications, the explanation for which could be yanked straight from the popular parlance of 1992 America: it’s the economy, stupid.

“Job prospects for young people are not as good. One alternative is for young people to go back to school,” said David Duff, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of British Columbia law school, which received roughly 2,200 applications this year, compared to 1,700 the year before. He was expecting a jump, but “25 per cent is pretty significant.” The last time the university’s law school received more than 2,000 applications was in the early ’90s—during the last recession.

Across the Georgia Strait, the University of Victoria’s law school saw a nearly one-third increase this year over last. Donna Greschner, University of Victoria’s dean of law, wasn’t surprised: she sees law school as the most accessible professional school options for a lot of recent undergrads, many of whom are struggling to find work.

The University of Ottawa also saw a 20 per cent rise in applications to its civil law school and a 27 per cent increase to its basic English common law degree, but it was the specialty programs that saw a real eye-popping change. The university offers a program called the “programme de droit canadien,” which allows students to earn both a common and a civil law degree in three years. “That went up from 45 applications to 157,” says Feldthusen—a whopping 249 per cent increase.

Making it even harder for borderline applicants such as Kaukinen, many law schools also saw a rise in the average GPA and LSAT scores of the incoming class. Schools don’t generally compile the median GPA and LSAT scores of classes until around October, when the first-year cohort is set in stone. But, anecdotally at least, admissions committees said they noticed a change.

“In an average year, our GPA is around an A- and LSAT is around 80th percentile,” said Michael Deturbide, associate dean of Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, which saw a 25 per cent increase in applications this year over last. “With the increase in numbers,” he said, “there are a lot of very, very strong students.”

The University of New Brunswick’s law school saw a relatively small increase in applications—from 897 to 952—but law admissions officer Wanda Foster found applicants had more competitive GPAs and LSAT scores. Duff said the same was true at UBC. “It’s harder to get into law school than it was last year or two years ago,” he said.

Students who did get accepted responded to the fierce competition by clinging to whatever offer they got as soon as they got them. Law schools always make more offers to applicants than they have room for in their first-year class, since a certain number will decline the offer.

This year, however, first-round uptake of offers across the board was higher than schools expected. Moreover, even after students agree to take a spot at a school, there’s often what administrators refer to as “melt”—students who give up their spot because they found a job or got a later offer from a school they preferred, or simply don’t pay a deposit on time and so get booted. That’s why schools make waiting lists: so that there’s a group on standby to fill holes that pop up in the class list. This year, by mid-August, some schools had yet to touch their wait list, as Kaukinen can easily attest.

In June, she learned she had the first spot on Schulich’s waiting list for students who live outside Nova Scotia. A number one spot on a waiting list is the best thing an applicant can hope for outside of an admission offer—usually it means that only one or two students need to give up their spot in the first-year class before you’ll get an offer. Not only was Kaukinen first on Dalhousie’s non-resident waiting list, but she was told by the University of Western Ontario that she was actually above their wait list. In any other summer, being number one on one school’s wait list and above another’s would make Kaukinen bound for law school this fall. But both Dalhousie and Western came back to her near the end of August to let her know their classes were oversubscribed and there was “virtually no chance” a spot would free up for her.
Western told her it had been an unusual year and that she was on a list to admit—“but then all these people came back saying yes,” she said.

Kaukinen had little in the way of a backup plan. Barring a very last-minute call from a law school (Dalhousie said she could get admitted as late as Sept. 15), she said she will most likely move home to Vancouver, where she’ll start working on her applications for next year.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that next year will be any easier. Duff said that during the last recession, application levels jumped up in 1990 and didn’t start to drop again until 1995.

“What happens on the demand side this time depends partly on the economic recovery and partly on whether or not there’s a long-term trend for people to go to law school,” Duff said.

For students who got shut out of this year’s admissions, the safest bet is to assume next year will be just as hard. Prisca Ho, 29, has wanted to go to law school ever since she got a job as a filing clerk at a law firm while she was earning her B.A. in English at the University of Alberta. After graduating and working for several years in marketing and advertising, she applied to three law schools this year, confident her professional experience would be a significant asset.

She got her final rejection in July. “It actually makes me feel a little better that it was harder to get in this year,” Ho said.

She had cleared her schedule this fall in anticipation of law school, but says she’ll use the year instead to travel and to rewrite the LSAT to better her stats. She also says she’ll apply to at least double the number of schools and make sure she looks for ones that will consider reference letters from her past legal jobs.

“It’s a concern knowing how many more people are applying, but this way at least I know I need to better my chances.”