Law Schools

Law school enrollment down 11 percent this year over last year, 24 percent over 3 years, data shows

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Law school enrollments nationwide are down 11 percent this year from last year and 24 percent from 2010, new figures show.

The nation’s 202 ABA-accredited schools reported that 39,675 full- and part-time students were enrolled in a first-year J.D. program this fall, according to figures released Tuesday by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

That’s a decrease of 4,806 students from the fall of 2012, when 44,481 students began their law school studies, and a decrease of 12,813 students from 2010, when an all-time high of 52,488 first-year students were enrolled in an ABA-accredited school.

The last time enrollment was so low was in 1975, when 39,038 students were enrolled. And, at the time, there were only 163 ABA-accredited schools.

Approximately two-thirds of all ABA-accredited law schools, or 135 schools, experienced a decline in first-year enrollment this year from the fall of 2012. At 81 of those schools, first-year enrollment declines exceeded 10 percent.

However, 31 percent of schools, or 63 schools, saw first-year enrollments go up this year over last year; at 27 of the 63 schools, enrollments increased by 10 percent or more. Enrollment in non-J.D. programs, on the other hand, is up slightly this year over last year, figures show. Schools reported that 11,139 students were enrolled in non-J.D. programs this year, compared with 11,067 students in the fall of 2012.

The vast majority of this year’s non-J.D. students (84 percent) are enrolled in advanced, post-J.D. degree programs, such as LL.M.s, for which a law degree is required. The other 16 percent are enrolled in degree programs for non-lawyer professionals.

Enrollment in non-J.D. programs is concentrated in a relatively small number of schools, figures show. Forty-eight schools enrolled 75 or more non-J.D. students. And the five schools with the largest non-J.D. enrollments accounted for 20 percent of the overall total.

Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, said the decline in enrollments is not unexpected. He and others have projected that enrollments would be between 38,500 and 40,000 this year.

On the plus side, he says the figures suggest that enrollments are coming closer to matching the Bureau of Labor Statistics job projections, which project that the economy can absorb about 22,000 new lawyers a year through the year 2020. That’s good for prospective students, he says, who will have more reason to think that a law degree will translate into the career they intended. The decline in enrollments also creates revenue pressures that will force law schools to look for ways to provide a more affordable legal education.

On the negative side, the enrollment figures are still 20 to 25 percent higher than the projected market for new jobs requiring or preferring a law degree, he says. And other data suggests that some schools are maintaining enrollments as high as they are by accepting students with lesser credentials, which could have negative long-term implications for the legal profession.

David Yellen, dean of Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, says while the figures are not surprising, it is “still kind of stunning” to think that law school enrollments have declined nearly 25 percent in three years. “The last time fewer than 40,000 students were enrolled in law school was in 1977,” he says.

Yellen also says that while he thinks 52,000 new law school enrollees a year is too many, we’re now at the point where we might want to ask whether the market correction has gone too far and is being driven as much by negative publicity as anything else.

However, new applications are projected to be down another 10 to 15 percent in the coming year, he says, “so we’re definitely not at the bottom of the cycle yet.”

The enrollment figures come from the questionnaires that ABA-approved law schools file annually with the section. Over the next several months, the section plans to publish more reports about the data, including school-specific information, which will also be posted on the statistics page of the section’s website.

Last updated Dec. 19 to include enrollment figures from 1975.

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