This letter is easy to spot. The first sentence always begins "We are [pleased/ delighted/ happy] ..." Congratulations! You're going to law school.
[Actually, this letter is almost an anachronism; these days acceptances most often happen by phone or email, although not always.]
There are four possible responses to an acceptance letter: yes, no, "what about next year?" and "can we talk money?"
The requested response to retain your seat is usually money, called a "seat deposit." This varies from $100 to $300, and is frequently non-refundable if you fail to attend. The theory behind the non-refundable seat deposit is that applicants will be encouraged to choose from among their acceptances before the response deadline (usually between April 15 and May 1), so that those on hold can be processed.
Seat deposits allow wealthier, more indecisive applicants to hold seats at a number of schools, while those who cannot afford numerous deposits are forced to reduce their options. A few schools make a noble effort to eliminate this financial discrimination by requiring monthly status reports from you instead of seat deposits. For financially disadvantaged applicants, schools may sometimes waive the seat deposit. If you want to request such a waiver, don't wait until the last minute; if the waiver isn't granted, you may have to find the money on short notice or lose your chance of attending. Be sure to include documentation of financial status with your request, unless you've already been given a fee waiver.
"But I Need More Time..."
Yeah, you and 10,000 other applicants. If you want the luxury of waiting until you decide, you pay for it. That's what seat deposits are for. But if financial aid is part of your decisions, let the school know.
In addition to the seat deposit, accepted students may have to complete forms for the registrar, financial aid and student housing. You may have to send a photograph if one was not included in your application; and you will be asked for an official final transcript showing that you have graduated. Complete all this paperwork as soon as possible; procrastination in these matters can have disastrous results.
A month or two after the first seat deposit, you are often asked to pay a second, refundable deposit of a larger amount. You should again reply as promptly as possible; if you want this deposit waived, you must write affirming your desire to attend the school and stating the reasons for your request. You must write even if your first deposit was waived; however, you need not send documentation of your financial status again.
Many schools will match the offer made by another school. But they don't usually match how much they give you; they match the need figure. For instance, School #1 costs $50k and gives you $20k; you're left to borrow (or otherwise come up with) $30k. If school #2 only costs $45k, they can offer you $15k and leave you in the same relative position. This is more common than one school's out-bidding another (although in 2012 and 2013, with application volumes horrendously low, some schools did actually outbid others.)
DO NOT LIE about these offers. You'll usually have to send a copy of your award letter, and if admissions officers at schools #1 and #2 are friendly, one might call the other and ask, "Why did you give George Washington so much? He's from an old Virginia family, and they own a cherry orchard." (If this is illegal under FERPA, it will happen less often than it used to.)
Declining to attend
If by the seat deposit deadline you know that you don't want to attend this school, please notify the school as soon as possible in writing. Some schools take your silence as procrastination, and hold seats open for a few weeks just in case; many will not act on a phone call, wanting written proof (by mail or fax) of your decision to prevent misunderstandings or practical jokes. They MAY accept email; you have to call and ask.
If you are one of the few applicants who can afford to pay a number of second deposits, please resist the urge to hold on to half a dozen acceptances like so many playing cards. If you hold onto six seats until June, at least five other people must wait to hear until July, with the attendant anxiety and potential disruption of last-minute decisions.
If you pay more than one seat deposit, notify the schools as soon as possible if you change your mind. Don't wait until the second and third deposit requests if you know you've been accepted at another school you'd rather attend. Each time you are accepted at another school, review your options and notify any schools you've eliminated from your consideration. Remember all of your friends who are waiting to hear, and who may not remain your friends if they find out that you're holding five seats while they have none.
Some students decide after applying to law school that they don't want to attend now, or cannot for financial or health reasons. In these instances you may want to request a deferral. Most law schools will grant a deferral for reasons of health, including pregnancy. Beyond this circumstance there is considerable variation in deferral policies. If you are considering deferring, try to determine the school's deferral policy early. It would be disastrous to pay seat deposits only to schools which will not grant your deferral. I asked schools for their policies at the 2003 Law Forums; here are the answers I collected.
A few students know before they apply that they will choose to defer admission, because of an enticing internship opportunity or personal plans. In these cases, discreet inquiries before applying may help you apply to schools amenable to your request.
Several admissions officers have suggested that your intention to defer should not be expressed in your application; it may be seen as a weakness in your file. Your intentions are best revealed after you have an acceptance letter in hand. However, if the school asks the question on the app, answer it honestly!
The commonest question I'm asked in the summer months (besides "Is X's waitlist moving yet?") is "What can I do now to get ready for law school?" And the best answer is "Read."
We have three great lists for you:
One is of books every law school student should read at least some of (updated in 2008);
The second is of Wiki Links to famous people and events in as many areas as I could imagine;
The third is of You Tube recordings of noteworthy moments in the last 80 years or so.