Washington and Lee University School of Law dean Nora V. Demleitner
Washington and Lee University School of Law dean Nora V. Demleitner (Photo: Rick Kopstein)

Some law schools fared much worse than others as enrollment declined last year, according to data released by the American Bar Association.

Thirteen law schools saw 1L enrollment drop by 30 percent or more in the span of 12 months, while an additional 27 recorded declines of 20 to 30 percent. In all, 132 of the 199 ABA-accredited law schools saw declines in their 1L classes, while eight schools saw no change in new enrollment.

Slightly more than a quarter of schools—62—actually posted 1L enrollment gains.

The ABA had reported in December that new student enrollment had declined significantly last fall, and the latest figures put the decline at 8 percent. The organization also offered a school-by-school breakdown of its findings.

New England School of Law saw the largest single-year decline in 1Ls, according to the ABA’s statistics. The Boston school enrolled 238 new students last fall, compared to 450 the previous year—a 47 percent decline.

Part of that decline happened because the school in 2012 enrolled 70 more students than usual, dean John O’Brien said. Even accounting for that anomaly, however, the drop off in 1Ls was significant.

“The decline in enrollments hit us later than most schools,” O’Brien said. “But we have strategic committees working on a weekly basis to ascertain the future of the school and where we should be with enrollment. They have determined that it would be wise to be a smaller school.”

In light of declining enrollment, New England late last year offered voluntary buyouts to faculty who had taught there for 15 years or more. Eight of the 21 eligible professors have accepted the deal, which provides two years of full compensation and 18 months of health care coverage. With fewer students, the school simply does not need as many professors or staff, O’Brien said.

Meanwhile, Washington and Lee University School of Law, which has earned accolades for retooling its third-year curriculum to be more practical-skills oriented, saw a 41 percent drop in the number of new 1Ls.

Administrators don’t view the result as cause for concern, dean Nora Demleitner said. The school had an unexpectedly high yield in 2012, meaning a higher number of admitted students accepted offers of admission.

“We usually have about 125 students in the 1L class and in 2012 we had 180,” Demleitner said. “We’ve never had that many students in the building, so this year we wanted to ensure that we could accommodate everyone, given that large class. I don’t think this is a harbinger of things to come.”

Washington and Lee aims to enroll about 120 1Ls next year, Demleitner said.

While many of the schools that saw hefty declines in new students are unranked by U.S. News & World Report—or rank outside the top 100—some higher-ranking law schools shrank significantly.

The University of Iowa College of Law, ranked No. 26 by U.S. News, had the third-highest percentage drop in new enrolment, at 40 percent. No. 38 University of California, Davis School of Law and No. 68 Case Western Reserve University School of Law fell by 25 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

In an August letter to the law school community, Iowa dean Gail Agrawal wrote that the recession and a decline in the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test had finally caught up to the institution, which had until this year been somewhat insulated from those realities.

“With significantly fewer applicants to choose from this year, we were left with a decision: maintain the number of students in the incoming class or maintain the high quality of our student body,” he wrote. “You will not be surprised to learn that we chose to protect the caliber of the class rather than its size.”

Many law schools are in that “pick your poison” situation, University of St. Thomas School of law professor Jerome Organ wrote in a post on The Legal Whiteboard blog, since they can’t maintain both class sizes and the academic profile of incoming students.

“A number of schools have picked profile and made an effort to hold profile or come close to holding profile by absorbing significant declines in first-year enrollment (and the corresponding loss of revenue),” Organ wrote. “By contrast, a number of schools have picked enrollment and made an effort to hold enrollment or come close to holding enrollment (and maintaining revenue) but at the expense of absorbing a significant decline in LSAT profile.”

Some have suffered both declining enrollment and lower academic profiles for their new students, Organ added.

For example, Arizona Summit Law School, formerly Phoenix School of Law, saw its 1L class size shrink by 31 percent. At the same time, its 75th-percentile LSAT score went from 150 in 2012 to 148 in 2013. (The median LSAT score fell by one point, while the 25th-percentile score remained at 141.) The Phoenix school’s 75th-percentile, median and 25th-percentile undergraduate grade-point averages each fell in 2013.

Organ looked at the LSAT scores of incoming law students at all law schools in 2012 and 2013, and found that the 75th-percentile, median and 25th-percentile scores each fell by one point in the last year. The decline grows to two points when 2013 figures are compared to those of 2010, Organ wrote.

Some law schools managed to buck the trend and posted larger 1L classes this year. Mercer University Walter F. George School of Law had the largest year-over-year increase, with a new class 44 percent larger than its predecessor. That increase in enrollment was accompanied by slight decreases in LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages.

Gary Simson, who last week left Mercer’s deanship to become a university vice provost, called the school’s high yield of 1Ls this year “probably the major accomplishment for the school during my deanship.” He credited the efforts of associate dean and chief operating officer Michael Dean in helping the Macon, Ga., law school defy the downward national enrollment trend.

Both Wake Forest University School of Law and Samford University Cumberland School of Law each posted the second-largest 1L growth, at 43 percent, according to the ABA.

View the complete data from the American Bar Association.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.