The American Bar Association last week updated its website with 2019 data on all American law schools. The upshot: overall law school enrollment rose a little this fall, but first-year classes are slightly smaller than they were a year ago.
Law school enrollment grew largely because of non-J.D. programs — that is, master's and certificate programs that don't lead to the bar exam and a career as an attorney. From 2018 to 2019, enrollment in these programs grew by 7 percent and represent about 15 percent of all law school students.
First-year law student enrollment, meanwhile, fell by three-tenths of a percent to 38,283, and that's probably making a few law school deans nervous. That's not a big drop by any means. But it's the first down year since 2015 for 1L enrollment at the nation's 203 ABA-approved law schools. And as this Law School Transparency graphic shows, law schools as far back as the late 1970s enrolled 40,000 or more new students each year, and new enrollments peaked at more than 52,000 in 2010. The recent trend has been flat, but law deans would much prefer a trend line that inches up than one that inches down.
Counter-intuitively, law school applications are actually up — 3.2 percent for this year's incoming class, 8 percent the year before that, according to this Law.com story. But as another Law.com story published a week ago notes, the so-called "Trump Bump" that might have briefly motivated more folks to go to law school (as I wrote about here in late 2017) might have flattened itself out.
The ABA's December data dump includes a lot of under-the-hood numbers for all U.S. law schools — details on enrollment, pricing, degrees awarded, faculty, curriculum and a few other things. Most law schools post these disclosure forms on their websites; the ABA collects them all here.
I pulled the numbers for North Carolina's six law schools from the 2018 and 2019 reports and noticed these trends:
• All six N.C. law schools got fewer applications in 2019, with declines ranging from a little less than 1 percent (N.C. Central) to 21 percent (Elon). Statewide, law school applications were down about 7 percent for 2019.
• Only two of the six law schools (Central and Wake Forest) attracted larger 1L classes in 2019. Elon had two fewer 1Ls in 2019 (146 vs. 144), so that barely counts as a decline; the rest saw smaller classes by between 5 and 10 percent. Central's huge increase (up 38 percent to 142 students) is probably due mostly to the fact that it admitted just 103 new students in fall 2018. Central's 2018 enrollment dip came after the ABA put Central on notice for its high dropout and low bar passage rates. Central has since satisfied the ABA's concerns — one measure was to cut the size of its incoming class — and Central's 1L enrollment is trending back toward its usual number.
• Four of the six N.C. law schools (all but Central and UNC-Chapel Hill) reported higher overall J.D. enrollment in 2019. Although 1L classes are smaller this year than they were a year ago at most N.C. law schools, they're bigger than the most recent graduating classes. The state's six law schools enroll 3,054 students — 2.4 percent more than in 2018. When you include the non-J.D. students (that is, the master's of laws programs I mentioned above), total N.C. law school enrollment rose 3.7 percent to 3,428. Duke and Wake Forest account for all but one student in the non-J.D. enrollment pool.
If you want to dig deeper into the data for N.C. law schools or any others, I'd encourage you to click here for the ABA disclosure forms, here for lots more ABA statistics and here for numbers from Law School Transparency, a website that puts current and prior-year ABA data into handy chart and graph form.
Keep an eye out for bar passage rates and employment data. The ABA will put out those numbers in March and April, respectively. Those are more key indicators of the health of the nation's law schools.