I dont' think the fact that there are more early apps in is indicative of more people applying.
After all, since admissions have been getting ridiculously competitive the last 3 or so years, it was seen as a trend, and not a fluke. Because of that, more and more advisors and adcoms are harping on people to get their apps in earlier and earlier.
I mean, there will always be the early birds, but seriously, how many of us that sent our applications in Oct and Nov would have been that "on the ball" had we not been terrified of hurting our chances by sending it later? I'd bet many of us would have waited until Dec and early Jan, which is still quite a bit before deadlines.
And there are many people who applied last year because they couldn't find a job. It was their easy alternative. They didn't get in anywhere, or perhaps didn't like where they got in. I'd bet that there's a good number who have since found jobs and are no longer applying. Those people who are reapplying now would probably have applied at some point no matter what the economic situation b/c you really want to be lawyers. It's your life, not simply an "alternative".
I'd also be shocked if there were an increase this year. I don't think numbers will drastically go down, but I'd expect them to drop slightly.
(and they are by no means only admitting auto-admits, veganNRAmember. There are quite a few who are being admitted as Javert said: competitive, but by no means shoo-ins.