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The number of first-year law students nationwide increased this fall—albeit slightly—for the first time since 2010, when word of a bleak entry-level job market and skyrocketing tuition turned off many potential applicants.
Some 36 additional law students showed up on American Bar Association-accredited campuses this year, for a total of 37,107, meaning new enrollment was essentially flat.
While law deans likely aren’t breaking out the bubbly, flat may sound pretty good to legal educators these days considering that first-year enrollment has plummeted 29 percent over the past six years. That decline has forced many law schools to pare down their faculties and make other painful budget cuts.
So are law schools on the road to recovery?
Not so fast, said Derek Muller, a law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who tracks enrollment trends on his blog Excess of Democracy. The new data suggests that this is the new reality for legal education.
“Flat” is good in the sense of stability, Muller said, but he added, “I think it’s bad for a lot of law schools that were hoping for growth, both in terms of quantity and quality. For schools that had been bracing for a short-term decline, with this bottoming out, I think they’re going to have to expect that this is the new normal.”
Muller predicted that the number of applicants this admissions cycle will remain stable, based on the fact that there has been no significant change in the number of people taking early administrations of the Law School Admission Test.
Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who also follows law school enrollment, isn’t predicting a resurgence of law students in the coming years. “I think it’s good that we’re not losing students,” he said. “But I think there’s probably still too many law schools for this many students. My guess is some places will have to shut down or merge.”
Overall, Juris Doctor enrollment fell from 113,900 in 2015 to 110,951 in 2016—a nearly 3 percent decline that reflects the fact that each graduating class is slightly larger than the ones behind it.
But it’s first-year enrollment that legal educators watch most closely, as it has economic implications for the next three years. The first-year class that started in 2015 was more than 2 percent smaller than the previous one, according to the ABA.
This year, 110 of the 205 ABA-accredited law schools reported an increase in the size of their first-year classes, while 94 said their class decreased compared to last year.
Arizona Summit Law School saw the largest decline, at 46 percent. It was followed by the University of South Dakota School of Law with a 39 percent decline and the University of Richmond School of Law with a new class that is 37 percent smaller.
Conversely, Indiana Tech Law School saw the largest enrollment increase, bringing in 41 new students, compared to just 13 the previous year. But the distinction is bittersweet for the three-year-old law school in Fort Wayne. University administrators announced in October that they would shutter the school at the end of the academic year due to low enrollment. The school struggled to recruit students in 2015 partly because of its unaccredited status, though it achieved ABA provisional accreditation earlier this year.
Another enrollment success in 2016 was the formerly embattled Charleston School of Law, which saw enrollment fall off dramatically after the for-profit law school consortium InfiLaw Inc. attempted to purchase the school in 2013. Students and faculty opposed the sale and local attorney Edward Bell assumed leadership last fall and vowed to rebuild the school’s reputation and student base. His first year at the helm looks to be a success, as first-year enrollment grew 153 percent, to 215. It enrolled just 85 new students last year.
Concordia University School of Law in Boise saw the third-largest first-year enrollment increase, at 44 percent. The school won provisional ABA accreditation in June.