There are so many important factors to consider and keep track of as you prepare your application for law school. The application process requires time, focus, and patient diligence—not unlike law school itself. One of the most crucial factors to keep in mind when applying to law school is the application deadline of the particular programs you are applying to. While there are some general deadlines to be aware of, as well as specific dates, we always encourage our clients to submit date-related or application-associated questions directly to their law programs of choice. Many students wonder where to begin this complicated process, so in order to provide you with a starting point, we have included some of the most pertinent information on law school application deadlines below.
What are "Hard" and "Soft"Deadlines
The majority of law schools use what is referred to as a "rolling" admission process. This means applications are accepted in the order in which they are received, a process that can reward candidates for being prepared and timely with their application materials. Submission portals open on a specified date, and candidates have the opportunity to submit applications over the course of several months, with schools accepting applications on a space-available basis later into the application cycle. This practice has led law programs to employ what we at Manhattan Review call "soft" deadlines and "hard" deadlines.
A hard deadline is the date after which a law school will neither accept nor read an application. A soft deadline, on the other hand, does not prohibit the submission of applications after a certain date. Even though a soft deadline is less restrictive, it should not be taken as an invitation to submit your application materials after the given date! You should make every effort to submit applications well before the stated deadline, as unexpected things can arise in your professional or personal life and applications may be more involved than you initially realized, with these and other factors extending the time you need to prepare the best application possible. In general, most law schools begin accepting applications in August or September and the rolling admission continues until December or February.
One important thing to note with regards to deadlines is that law schools often have separate deadlines for specific programs or scholarships. For example, the University of California at Berkeley's law program has a general application deadline of February 15th, but the deadline to be considered for the Berkeley Law Opportunity Scholarship is December 15th, with the deadline for applying for general financial aid ending March 2nd.
Most years, the ability to prepare well in advance to submit your strongest possible application earlier rather than later could help increase your odds of admission. Many students find it helpful to work backwards—determine the submission deadlines for the programs you wish to apply to, find out when the programs will begin accepting applications, and ensure your materials are finalized and complete so you can submit your application package without worry shortly after the opening of the application consideration window.
When Should I Submit my Application?
Other terms you will frequently encounter when applying to law school are "early" decision versus "regular" decision, and there are important distinctions between the two. Once you know you will be applying to law school, it is important to decide whether or not you will make use of the early decision process. As this step is a serious commitment, it bears careful consideration.
Those who choose early decision submit their applications shortly after the rolling application window opens, usually sometime between August and November. These applications are promptly reviewed and evaluated, and applicants receive expedited decisions about their applications' acceptance or rejection status. While there can be advantages and disadvantages for choosing early decision, the most important thing to note when doing so is the deadline. Early decision deadlines tend to fall in November, typically at least three months before the regular application deadline. Early decision deadlines tend to be hard deadlines, while regular decision deadlines tend to be soft deadlines (see Hard versus Soft Deadlines for additional explanation of these terms).
With a few notable exceptions, early decision is a binding commitment and something you select for only one law school. Applicants who are accepted via early decision commit to attending the law school that accepts them, withdrawing applications from other schools and not applying elsewhere. There are unique benefits to early decision, as this can signal those reviewing your application that you are serious about pursuing your studies in this particular program. The early applicant pool is often smaller than the general applicant pool, with some law schools aiming to make a decision within a month or so of receiving an early decision application. Most programs provide their early decision applicants with a decision by the end of December, whereas general applicants might not receive a decision until March or April.
At the same time, there can be disadvantages to early decision. You do need to have all your application materials in order and ready to submit by a deadline that is not flexible. You will have to choose one school from all the programs you are applying to and commit to attending that school, should you be accepted. And, depending on the number and quality of applications received, many early decision applicants find themselves deferred to the general admissions pool, releasing them from the binding nature of such a commitment but ultimately not leaving them any better off than if they had applied later and chosen to receive a general admissions decision.
When deciding between early decision and regular decision, take some time to consider what option is best for you. Online law school application groups and forums may prove helpful, in addition to discussing the decision with those who know you best and can offer trusted advice. College counselors and other preparatory professionals can also share experiences and are happy to answer questions to help you select the best choice for you.
Be Wary of When It May Be too Late to Submit an Application
Is it ever too late to submit a law school application? The answer is, it depends. While some law schools are very clear about hard deadlines, the vast majority will accept applications after their stated deadlines. This does not mean submitting later is a good practice when submitting applications…it simply means that there may be options still available to you past the deadline stated on a school's website. It is important to note that most of the top law school programs will only guarantee full consideration of applications that have been submitted by their stated deadline. To further complicate the process, many schools have "priority" deadlines, which generally means they will guarantee a decision by a certain date for applicants who submit all materials before that given date. Many schools will also accept applications into the summer and will consider and accept candidates who submit applications as late as June or July.
For the majority of schools, the only way to know for sure that it is too late to apply is to contact the Admissions Office and ask. You might be surprised by their answer, but you also should not count on it being in your favor. The law school application process is designed to favor those who do their due diligence and apply in the late summer or early fall, and it is far better to submit in a timely manner than to stress over submitting applications the night before or the week after they are due, causing yourself unnecessary anxiety that could have been avoided with proper planning. Law school is an on-going exercise in meeting deadlines, and part of the admissions process is evaluating how well you are able to follow directions and submit required materials by specific dates. Set yourself up for success by demonstrating skills that will serve you well over the course of your legal career.
Summary: What You Need to Know About Law School Deadlines
As a rule of thumb, you can initially assume that law school application submission will be opened between the 1st of September and 1st of October.
Early decision deadlines are typically between November 1st and December 1st but there are always outliers, and we encourage you to finalize early decision dates with your law program of choice.
Regular decision deadlines most frequently fall between February 1st and April 1st, but many schools will continue to accept applications after the deadlines they have set.
Contact the school directly if you have any questions about deadline dates and policies.
As with so many aspects of the law school admissions process, the importance of application deadlines varies greatly from school to school, so we recommend always contacting the schools directly if you have any questions about their specific deadlines. It cannot be overstated how important it is to put your best foot forward when applying to law programs. The admissions committee will be inferring how well they believe you will do in their program based off your ability to successfully submit a completed application by the dates given. Provide the admission committee with numerous reasons to offer you a place in their program by following stated procedures and guidelines and save yourself the hassle and anxiety of putting your materials together at the last minute.