There are not a lot of trends from the 1970s that have made a comeback in the 2010s — unless of course you count big sunglasses, rompers and first-year law school enrollment.

According to the latest figures from the American Bar Association (ABA), first-year enrollment at U.S. law schools have dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s. The decline in enrollment is driven by students veering away from a career that has left many recent graduates with a pile of debt as they struggle to find work.

The number of first-year law students fell 11 percent this year with 39,675 full-time and part-time students enrolled in law school, nearly 5,000 fewer than in 2012. That number is just one student shy of 1977 enrollment levels, when the ABA reported 39,676 first-year students.

Approximately two-thirds of ABA law schools (135) experienced declines in first-year enrollment from last year. At 81 law schools, 1L declines exceeded 10 percent. At 63 schools, 1L enrollment increased from 2012. At 27 of those schools, enrollment increased 10 percent or more. At 34 schools, the number of 1L students stayed within five students above or below last year’s figures.

The 2008 recession has played a part in declining figures, according to Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. “I think the collapse of the job market a few years ago was a surprise to the profession, and to law schools,” Currier told the Wall Street Journal.  

Law school enrollment flourished from the mid-1970s through the 1990s, with first-year enrollment ranging between about 39,000 and 44,000.

A study by Kaplan Test Prep Survey in October revealed similar results: 54 percent of law school admissions officers said they have decreased the size of their incoming classes for 2013-2014. This makes two years in a row with falling class sizes, as 51 percent reported smaller classes for 2012-2013. The trend does not seem to be pointing upward either, as 25 percent say they already plan to cut class sizes for 2014-2015 as well.

Since law schools saw a combined 602,300 applicants in 2010, the pool from which law schools are selecting their applicants has dropped considerably. Only 385,400 students applied to law schools in 2013, according to Kaplan, the lowest level of applicants in decades.


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