Law School admissions has changed since you applied, even in the past few years. And guess what? It’s going to change even more.
By nature, the world of law school admissions involves a certain level of volatility. Peaks and valleys are inevitable due to a variety of factors, including the economy.
But so much more has come into play over the past 20, 10, even five years.
“It is a dramatically different world than when I started this job back in 2008 and certainly even when I was a student here as well,” said Rebecca Scheller, associate dean of Admissions & Financial Aid at University of Wisconsin Law School.
We sat down with Dean Scheller for a dive into the seven ways admissions has changed and the five ways it could be further shaped in the near future.
1. Data is more important
Like in other industries, data has introduced new advantages and challenges.
“So much of what I do has evolved from more of a putting together a class that feels right to something that is enormously data driven.”
The pro? Running models and comparing numbers over different time periods can be valuable.
“It offers some predictive value and that is somewhat comforting. You don’t want to over-enroll a class. The Law building has a certain capacity. You have to be on top of your game when it comes to understanding data trends and population trends at the undergrad level.”
But it’s a difficult balance.
“The admissions team, we’re ‘people people’ who really care about working with students and enjoy that student interaction. We bring our hearts to serving students and connecting with them on an exciting new chapter for them.”
2. Parents are more engaged
Parents are more involved in the law school decision-making process, which might seem a bit odd since UW Law students range from ages 20 to 57.
“We have some very independent people who, this is a second career for them or they were deployed overseas in the military. But we also have students whose parents have always been involved very heavily in their educational experience, definitely at the K-12 level and beyond into the collegiate level.”
3. Students are more engaged
The newest cohort of applicants is a group of very savvy consumers.
“They are very interested in the financial aid side of things, wanting to know much more about scholarships and the loan repayment process, even before they take out a student loan.”
They are also looking comprehensively at the law school experience rather than just classes and sched-ules, which leads to much deeper conversations.
“The types of questions they are asking about now include: What are the academic support resources that I’m going to receive? What kind of accommodations and mental health support will I get when I’m there? What is the student body like? What is the culture like? Do professors and the dean have an open-door policy? What is the community like? They’re really interested in what’s happening inside and outside of the classroom experience.”
4. The attention is more intense
Over the past five years, the environment for law school admissions has become hypercompetitive.
“Law schools are often the crown jewel for many universities, almost an anchor for the institution.”
Add to that the fact that the law, whether that’s law schools, law firms, or legislative or court activity, is in the news more than ever.
“All eyes are on us, it seems. Law schools are these places where ideas come to be exchanged, so there’s a lot of interest, and any sort of misstep can be heavily scrutinized, but we are looked at as the experts as far as what is happening out there.”
Plus, applicants in this generation, with political backgrounds across the spectrum, want to make change in the world. “Students are coming to us who have a deeper interest and knowledge of some areas of law than they did in previous years. International law, immigration law, corporate law. People who have worked in the political realm who have served as aides at the state and national level. And an increased interest from veterans.”
5. Social media is more primary
Social media is a sprawling information system, way beyond the era of Facebook and the Admitted Students web portal.
“Prospective students are expanding the resources from which they receive information. There’s a tremendous use of Instagram, so that’s why we created that account.”
Regardless of platform and the changing nature of social media, the goal is to give accurate information.
6. COVID-19 created more … opportunities?
We couldn’t write this story without recognizing the illness that has impacted our lives so dramatically for the past three years.
First off, COVID-19 created a certain degree of softness in the enrollment process.
“Where data is a powerful predictive tool, COVID somewhat upended that. It caused a surge in application volume. We here at Wisconsin experienced a double surge in back-to-back years. With the residual effect of COVID, we didn’t know what the class size was going to be. It seems to be resolving as the application trend nationwide is receding with people looking to go back into the great market. We don’t know how long that will last.”
Like in other industries, by moving things virtually, COVID opened the door to reaching applicants more broadly.
At the beginning of the pandemic, UW Law created a new partnership with the University of Miami (Florida) and five other schools called the National Law Admissions Consortium.
“No other schools were quite doing anything like that yet. We hosted hourlong webinars on all kinds of topics. We saw, in one hour, anywhere from 200 to 1,000 prospective students, and there was no way at in-person events we could get that size of an audience.”
The group is geographically diverse, done deliberately to tap into schools that have a command of their region to bring everyone together. The others are:
- Fordham University (New York City)
- American University (Washington, D.C.)
- Southern Methodist University (Dallas, Texas)
- UC Hastings (San Francisco)
- The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
“The consortium is intriguing to students because they get a great mix of excellent law schools coming to their law school or presenting in an online format.”
7. Diversity and access are even more important
UW Law School has a long-standing reputation of valuing diversity and access in a holistic admissions review. Other law schools are catching up to that while UW Law continues to explore more possibilities. Like finding new ways to meet and attract students where they are.
“We were invited as a short list of law schools to do webinars with schools like Central State University (Ohio) as well as Spelman College (Atlanta). We’ve also partnered during COVID with UC Berkeley and Arizona State University to be part of their Native Pathways program, as they have federal grant funding for this program.”
What does the future hold?
You don’t need a crystal ball to see several changes possible or even inherent on the horizon. Dean Scheller said it will be interesting to watch law schools for the foreseeable future. She shared her insights on what factors are expected to influence the near future.
1. Less emphasis on entrance exams
The American Bar Association has proposed an amendment to Standard 503 that would eliminate the requirement of a valid and reliable test (LSAT or GRE).
“What will the admissions world look like if a test is no longer required? Law schools will still be able to require them, but we may see some shifts in that space. Some law schools might do away with tests altogether and just rely on the undergraduate GPA and other factors in the admissions process.”
2. U.S. News & World Report ranking
In January, after consulting with campus leadership, faculty, staff, alumni and student representatives, UW Law decided not to participate in this year’s U.S. News & World Report law school survey.
“The values underlying the U.S. News ranking do not align with UW Law’s mission and goals,” Dean Dan Tokaji wrote in his statement.
U.S. News plans to continue to rank law schools regardless of whether their surveys are returned; many schools similarly have announced their concerns and withdrawals since November 2022.
“Realistically, students are putting less emphasis on this ranking when choosing which law school is the best fit for their needs and interests.”
3. Impact of affirmative action rulings
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this year in two cases over race-based admissions (Harvard and the University of North Carolina), which could have major ramifications for higher education.
“Of course, we will do whatever the Supreme Court tells us we are able to do, but that could create a change in what we require and look at on our application. That could shift holistic review,” said Scheller.
4. Growing accommodations
The Law School is seeing an increasing number of students who require learning accommodations, and it has grown its student services team to meet that need.
The trend is expected to continue, and over the years, these applicants have become more comfortable sharing and advocating for themselves.
“Students are coming to us with so many kinds of diversity—unique experiences, viewpoint diversity and neurodiversity that we are seeing in the classroom. Those pieces are already transforming the law school experience, and that’s all for the better because it’s reflecting the world. Employers need to know this is coming. There are more shades of gray in how people perform in the classroom and the legal profession arena.”
5. Focus on the bar exam
UW Law School has long been unique among American public law schools in that its graduates may be licensed to practice law without taking the bar exam, if they take a required set of courses.
The “diploma privilege” eliminates a significant barrier to entry—the bar exam—that disproportionately affects people from less advantaged backgrounds and historically underrepresented groups.
“This increasing national concern about inequity, paired with questions over the bar exam’s inadequacies, has prompted other states to experiment with forms of the ‘diploma privilege.’ Some law school leaders have endorsed the concept. So, we have to see what is deemed necessary for licensure.”
New Space Offers Best View
Not only has the admissions process changed since you attended University of Wisconsin Law School, so has the office!
Last fall, Admissions moved from the fourth floor on the east side of the Law building because it had outgrown the space.
The new office—on the sixth floor on the west side of the building—feels welcoming and open, with natural light coming from floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Admissions is a much more customer-service, retail-oriented enterprise these days,” said Rebecca Scheller, associate dean of Admissions & Financial Aid. “Bringing students into our cramped former space with very low ceilings was not exactly the best selling point for this great place to learn.”
Frankly, there is nothing quite like the view of Bascom Hill.
“When I am bringing in students now who have never been here before, I see them glance out of the corners of their eyes to catch a glimpse of Bascom Hill,” Scheller said. “There’s a lot of activity out there. Once you see the energy and beauty of campus, it makes it easier to visualize yourself as a student here. The Law School is at the heart of all the activity at UW–Madison. …. I want to go out there right now!”
Not only was the larger space more important to enable the confidential work of admissions and financial aid, it also provided important synergies with other offices.
Like Graduate and International Programs, Scheller said. There are many parallels in the recruitment and student experiences of our J.D. students as well as our LL.M. students.
“It’s a lot easier to run down the hall and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this idea?’ or ‘Have you tried this?’” she explained.
From Student to Lawyer to Admissions Dean
Dean Rebecca Scheller, a double Badger, said she was always drawn back to University of Wisconsin Law School because of her heavy involvement here. “I was in leadership roles like secretary of Latina Law Students Association, president of Mock Trial, member of the Women’s Law Student Association.
I was kind of a student ambassador before we had student ambassadors, to talk with prospective students and shepherd them at the Legal Education Opportunities (LEO) banquet and make sure they had a friendly face,” she said.
When a position opened up for assistant director of admissions, “before I knew it, I was no longer billing hours and instead I was visiting the University of Notre Dame and UCLA. It was an exciting thing that aligned with what I did here as a student and where I was meant to be.
Having practiced lends a degree of legitimacy in my conversations with students because I went here for law school, I benefited from the diploma privilege, I took advantage of interning with the Supreme Court here in Madison.”
One thing she enjoys in her role is visiting so many amazing people and places in Wisconsin, from UW System schools to tribal reservations. “I have gotten to explore this state in deeper ways than I ever did as a student,” she said.
How do her two preteen children see her job? “They know I get on a lot of airplanes, that I serve as leading an access point to becoming a lawyer. I talk with a lot of students who ultimately may become future Badgers,” she said.
Braden Kundert, a 2L student from Lake Geneva, enjoys being a student ambassador.
“I love telling prospective students about what a great experience I’ve had and all the opportunities the Law School has to offer. UW Law has been the best choice for me because it has allowed me to get firsthand experience in state government, at both the Wisconsin DOJ and Supreme Court, but also provided me with a great network of professors, lawyers and students to learn from.”
Wisconsin has huge selling points, with a history of Law in Action and academic excellence.
So, what is UW Law’s biggest value proposition?
“There are many reasons why students would choose us over other schools,” said Scheller.
“A big one is financial aid. We offer very compelling scholarship packages. It goes beyond how much money they get. Student loan debt is something we have always been keeping our eye on before it became a national big deal.
We offer a whole financial wellness program that begins right away as an admitted student.
We offer budgeting seminars. We bring in experts who will talk about investing and planning for life after law school including getting a mortgage or a car loan.
Because of those type of offerings, as well as the deep level expertise we have in the admissions and financial aid office, we’re able to offer something where students know they can graduate with a reasonable amount of debt, to have doors open for their careers versus being bound to one career trajectory.”
Another selling point is that “Wisconsin can sometimes be the center of the universe, particularly during the political season, but the value of being in a state capital that is within walking distance to the university cannot be overstated.
People talk about how they can put that classroom experience into the courtroom all within the same day. They can see the legislature in action. They can see the Supreme Court conducting oral arguments. That creates this comprehensive experience that you can’t get in other places.”
Misconceptions About Wisconsin
Sometimes people aren’t sure what to expect in Wisconsin.
“They think the Midwest is flat, and then they start trekking up Bascom Hill every day for classes. People are always surprised at Madison’s terrain and really the beauty of Wisconsin as a whole.
Our clinics allow students from Los Angeles to go see Oxford, the middle of the state. Brown County or Vilas County. We are in some ways a hidden gem of this country, and that is perhaps a secret weapon of ours in the admissions office,” said Scheller.
How can you support UW Law?
One of the easiest things anyone can do to support UW Law is to give their time: Word-of-mouth via one-on-one conversations and social media is invaluable. So is volunteering to serve on a virtual panel with prospective students.
Of course, financial support from alumni is critical and much appreciated at any level.
Those who want to establish a scholarship are encouraged to think about their goals and preferences to allow the most flexibility in finding candidates who could use the assistance.
For more information, contact Development Director Elizabeth Feist.
Photos by Nick Wilkes | Graphics by Kimberly Raether