Getting into law school is harder than ever

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

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTINNE MUSCHI

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.”




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Getting into law school is harder than ever

  1. While getting in is certainly more difficult than ever before, potential students should be aware that it is in fact the easy part.
    Law school itself, especially the first year, is a very difficult place to succeed. Largely due to the pedagogy of law school itself, there is very little feedback and it is completely different than other studies. This is followed with a profession that is very competitive. Most students will not get the coveted positions in big firms that many enter law school feeling entitled to.

    • I would urge students who are rejected to take a critical look at themselves, and why they want to go to law school. Being an unsuccessful applicant is to be preferred to being an unsuccessful law student or graduate. Being rejected presents a good opportunity for reflection prior to seeking alternatives whether it be retaking the lsat or improving grades or extra-curriculars or seeking another path.
      If on reflection, or are already able to articulate, you know why you feel you want to go to school this will help you improve your application through increased motivation and commitment. Or it could lead to a new direction that will often lead to a better career.
      The admissions at Canadian schools also varies fairly substantially, many schools are quite holistic seeking the best in other pursuits others have a narrow focus on grades/lsat. It is important to do research on which school offers the best chance, tailoring your applications to each, and applying broadly
      Good luck to all the applicants in the new year.

  2. I would have to agree with Mike. Given the marking scheme in law school, there is virtually no chance that a student can fail out once accepted. That being the case, acceptance stands as the largest stepping stone. Furthermore, as Mike indicated, students may not acquire the legal position they had their hearts set on, but it is fairly certain that they will indeed get a job within the legal field. From there, improving your position is just like any other industry where the ones who work the hardest will eventually achieve their goals.

  3. Getting in was not as hard as first year, so make sure you want it!

  4. Think of applying abroad. Australia has some great law progams, and even some that cater to Canadians (i.e. Bond). I, too, got the plethora of rejection letters from Canadian schools and am happy to be completing my degree in Australia!

    • and how do you afford the International stunt tuition?

    • how did you find it at bond university or did you go elsewhere

    • everyone knows that bond is 100k and easy to get in if u just pay that amount.
      when you go to apply for a job in canada, you will be compared to those who spent hours and years studying hard in canada.
      there is no short cut to happiness!

  5. I remember how intimidating the application process was, and first year has certainly been quite a challenge thus far. However, all I can say to anyone that wants to apply: don't be discouraged by anything anyone says. If it's what you want, give it your best effort. I had a lot of people try and tell me what my 'chances' were. Truth is, they just don't know, and so you just have to do it.

    • Refreshing advice !

  6. I got a law degree at U of T and I would have to say that Law was significantly easier than getting my undergrad in Engineering.  If you come into it from a good science background you’ll find law school a breeze.  The sad thing is that most engineers will never get the chance to enter law school because it is much harder to compete with the gpa’s of those with easier degrees.  That to me is the problem, there needs to be more options for Law in Canada, a lot of smart people cannot get in while those who coasted through arts degrees are accepted.

    • You have no idea what you are talking about.

    • YA you really have no idea how difficult it is to get a degree in arts, considering the fact that you have to write some difficult term papers.

      • I actually have an arts degree and an engineering degree.
        In arts I had a 4.1 GPA, engineering 3.5.
        Eng is killer hard…its just that simple, If you like what you are doing in Arts/Law its a joy compared to Eng.  A lot of courses in Eng are just pure torture.

        • The GPA scale only goes to 4.
          I don’t know how you came up with 4.1

          It seems to me that you are not telling the truth in order to support your argument, which is clearly false.

          • Some schools mark on a 4.3 scale …. 

          • Yes Karen. Bob is clearly an idiot

          • i am in uoft and what you are saying is clearly a BS!

        • ur not making sense because arts is as hard as engineering.

          • One time in the engineering building we ran out of toilet paper, we started using arts degrees instead.

          • haha there is no way in hell arts comes even CLOSE to engineering on the hard scale.

          • lol see if you can make it through a crit w/o having your soul torn out

            they are not comparable disciplines

    • … Hard to believe. Law school seems really out of the grasp of average people :/

    • Please tell me more! I’m looking at doing the same thing, but I’m soo confused with undergrad studies.

    • Engineering and the arts have their own degree of difficulty. Someone who is in engineering would not necessarily find the arts easier, most would find it much harder. The same goes with an arts student trying to study engineering. What I’ve realized is that many science courses in UFT just as Biology, Geology, Chemistry, etc. are ALL or mostly based on memorization. If you can memorize, you got it. With the arts it’s more of understanding, and in the sciences/maths it’s much easier to get perfect or almost perfect. Whereas, in the humanities it’s nearly impossible to get perfect.

  7. Well considering there is influx of lawyers its about time they made applications harder. Having said that, admission to the top law schools is still infinitely easier than admission into top medicine, or phd programs.

  8. Medical harder. Law just undergraduate years compare to medical students, hard is “hard” to believe to be true.

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