Enrollment dropped nearly 7 percent from last year, according to the American Bar Association. That represents a 17.5 percent decline from the historic high enrollment in 2010, and puts enrollment at the lowest level since 1982-a period when there were many fewer law schools.
This fall, the 204 law schools accredited by the bar association had 37,924 full- and part-time students beginning their juris doctorate studies, down 1,751 students, or 4.4 percent, from 2013.
The data documented a plunge of 27.7 percent from the peak year of first-year law school enrollment of 52,488 just four years ago, when the economic recession was in full swing and people flocked to law school for a professional degree.
Since then, law graduates have encountered a rocky job market and have been rethinking a six-figure investment in a legal education. Fewer people are taking the admissions test and applying to law school, according to recent data from the Law School Admission Council. The number of test takers was 8.1 percent lower than a year ago, and about 50 percent below the same test period in 2009, according to council figures.
Discouraging employment figures, also from the bar association, show that nine months after being awarded their degree in 2013, fewer than two-thirds of the newly minted lawyers had found jobs that required passing the bar. That tougher path to legal employment means law schools are harder pressed to attract students, especially those whose top grades and admissions test scores would shore up a school's national competitive ranking.
The realities of legal education become clear each December, when the bar association releases statistics from law schools, which are accredited by the bar association's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The schools are required to post their data on their websites by Dec. 15; the bar association also posts the information online.
The overall picture shows that 119,775 law students-both full- and part-time-are currently enrolled. That is 8,935 fewer than the fall of 2013, and 17.5 percent fewer than 2010. The total enrollment, the association reported, is the lowest since 1982, when there were only 169 accredited law schools.
This year, 127 law schools, or nearly two-thirds of them, had smaller first-year enrollment than a year ago. But 69 schools had larger entering classes this fall than a year ago, as some schools have expanded their cross-disciplinary offerings and others have lowered tuition or increased scholarships. The bar association will be releasing more detailed, school-specific information over the next few months.
To tackle the growing issue of the cost of legal education, student loans and debt loads, the bar association formed a task force last spring. The group, led by Dennis W. Archer, a former Detroit mayor and former bar association president, will also examine issues like scholarship awards and conditions and discounting tuition.