Striking a blow for applicant rights.

Just now, I was very pleased to have an e-mail from the Law School Admissions Council pop onto my screen. LSAC announced that the Board of Trustees (which consists of faculty, deans, and admissions folk from law schools around the country) just approved changes to the Statement of Good Admission and Financial Aid Practice. I will explain the exciting changes in a moment, but first I will give you, the reader, a chance to absorb the initial exciting news that such a Statement exists. Up until this moment, you, perhaps, thought we were an entirely unregulated, anarchic bunch of cowboys.

Well, honestly, we sort of are. Because although the LSAC counts as its members all (or perhaps virtually all? I’m not aware of any holdouts, but I haven’t compared membership lists) ABA-approved law schools, and thus a Statement of Good Admission and Financial Aid Practice with the imprimatur of the Board represents the consensus view of, well, everyone, it is also the case that the LSAC is not charged with law enforcement duties. According to the certificate of incorporation and bylaws, its mission is, among other things, “o provide services to law schools and the educational community,” but those services don’t include kicking ass and taking names of malefactors. So, in fact, a school that chooses to ignore the Statement isn’t going to get hauled off to law school jail. But it will risk the scorn and condescension of all its colleagues, and that’s not nothing.

The most exciting change, in my view, was the insertion of one word:

Law schools should allow applicants the freedom to explore as many opportunities to pursue legal education as possible. . . . An early decision plan is one under which an applicant and a law school mutually agree at the initial point of application that the applicant will be given an admission decision at a date earlier than usual in return for the applicant’s commitment, at that date, to attend the school and withdraw all applications pending at other law schools, and not initiate new applications.

(Law school teaches you to get excited about the addition and omission of individual words, for the record.) As I discussed in an earlier post, early-decision programs have the capacity to exploit applicant stress and anxiety. One sort of gross, in my view, distortion that has resulted from that exploitation capacity is the invention of the “floating” early decision program: At some schools, an applicant can convert a regular-decision application into an early-decision application at any point in the admissions season. When the stress starts getting to you, you agree to forego all others in an exchange for a quick admit decision. The school locks you in, thereby saving itself any financial aid its policies might otherwise have dictated it disburse in order to recruit you. The Statement now makes pretty clear that those policies are verboten—although honestly, I think sensible minds could have concluded that based on the existing language.

Another change is equally salutary from the applicants’ perspective, although I do have sympathy for the schools that will have to change their practices as a result. The Statement now provides that even if you accept a scholarship, pay a deposit, or otherwise make a commitment to a school, you remain free to accept a new offer from another law school. That doesn’t necessarily mean that an applicant can simultaneously hold 20 or so seats at various law schools; beginning on May 15, law schools get information about which of their deposited applicants also hold deposits at other schools, and a law school is free to make a policy that forbids submitting deposits to more than one law school—and can withdraw its offer to you if you do so. It does mean, however, that if you have accepted a law school’s offer, that school cannot require you to withdraw from all other waitlists. While that presents a challenge for schools whose financial aid funds are very constrained (because they can’t afford the risk that more people will accept their scholarship offers than they have guaranteed funds to cover, and thus, losing a scholarship recipient deep in the admissions season is likely to mean that they just forego being able to use that money to recruit a candidate), I think it represents an important recognition that, in the end, the well-being of the applicants ought to be the prime concern of our admissions policies.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean for Admissions and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies