Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi

Overall new student enrollment at the nation’s law schools increased 3 percent this fall, according to figures released by the American Bar Association on Dec. 14, and the majority of Pennsylvania law schools saw gains either at or above the national average.

The 3 percent jump nationwide represents the first measurable increase in the size of the first-year class since 2010—when new enrollment peaked at more than 52,000. The number of new law students at ABA-accredited law schools fell 29 percent between 2010 and 2015, before leveling off at about 37,000 for the next three years. This fall, 38,390 new students showed up on campus, which is 1,070 more than the previous year.

Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh saw the biggest enrollment bump of any Pennsylvania school, growing its 2018 first-year class to 188 students from 148 students a year ago—an increase of more than 27 percent.

Penn State’s two law schools—Penn State Law in University Park and Dickinson Law in Carlisle—saw the second- and fourth-highest enrollment gains for Pennsylvania law schools this fall, at nearly 7 percent (119 students to 127) and 4 percent (73 students to 76), respectively.

Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law took the third spot, with enrollment growth of 5 percent (175 to 183 students).

Meanwhile, University of Pennsylvania Law School grew enrollment by nearly 3 percent (244 students to 251), Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law by 2 percent (151 students to 154) and Temple University’s Beasley School of Law by about 1.5 percent (223 students to 226).

University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Widener University Commonwealth Law School, on the other hand, were the only Pennsylvania law schools to see enrollment drop this fall. Pitt Law’s enrollment decreased by just under 8 percent (141 students to 130) and Widener Commonwealth’s enrollment dropped by nearly 9 percent (128 students to 117).

In a statement, Pitt Law Dean Amy Wildermuth said the class size decrease was intentional, ”as part of a multi-year, data-driven plan that reflects a deep investment from, and partnership with, the provost and chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.”

“The plan takes into account data that we have collected around, among other things, the anticipated career opportunities for our grads both regionally and nationally in an ever-changing market; the qualities that produce the most successful grads of Pitt Law; and the requirements for delivering the best, cutting-edge legal education and experiences for our students,” Wildermuth said in the statement. “At a smaller size, we believe we will be better able to fulfill our promise to our graduates that that they will have the kinds of career opportunities that they expected when selecting Pitt Law. A reduction in our class size also allows us to focus our selection process to ensure we are able to attract the best-qualified candidates for Pitt Law.”

Wildermuth also said lower enrollment would allow for smaller class sizes and more personalized education as the school seeks to institute a curriculum focused on preparing students “to understand and use technology to their advantage, to be an effective team member on cross-discipline teams, to become expert decision-makers and problem-solvers, and to serve and engage deeply with their communities.”

John Benfield, associate dean of admissions and administration at Widener Law Commonwealth, meanwhile, noted in an emailed statement that, while this year’s enrollment decreased as compared to last year, it’s “still way up from the numbers for the entering class in 2015, 2014, and 2013.”

“It is important to note that the increase class size from fall 2015 to fall 2016 was approximately 62 percent,” Benfield said. “This increase in class size was done while also maintaining and protecting the class profile, median LSAT and GPA. For fall 2017, the entering class was again increased while protecting the profile. In fall 2018, the class size was reduced, but again the profile was maintained. While much was reported of the increased applications for 2018, a closer look at the pool of applicants shows that the increase in test takers and applicants occurred at the upper LSAT percentiles.”

The nationwide enrollment boost is welcome news for legal academics, who for years have hoped in vain for a turnaround in legal education’s fortunes. Waning interest in a law degree forced many schools to reduce the size of their faculties and make other cutbacks. Five schools have closed in recent years or will soon shut down.

The 3 percent increase in new law students this year isn’t unexpected. Applicants to law school surged 8 percent last year, according to the Law School Admission Council, fueling speculation that law school is once again a hot ticket. The Trump administration and discord in Washington are contributing to the added interest in legal education, according to deans and admissions officers.

Some schools appear to have utilized the larger applicant pool as an opportunity to be more selective about the students they admit, said Jerome Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who studies enrollment trends. Put another way, schools opted to admit fewer students than they could have, given the increase in applicants in order to bring in classes with higher Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grades, he said.

Still, the boost in applicants caught some law schools by surprise. Some ended up with larger 1L classes than intended, which is a reversal from the days when admissions offices were scrambling to fill up seats. More than half of schools—122—reported an increase in the size of their first-year class, while 81 schools told the ABA that their 1L class is smaller than in 2017.

It’s not just J.D. programs that gained in popularity this year. Enrollment in non-J.D. programs, which includes LL.M. and masters programs, grew more than 8 percent from 2017.