First-year enrollment at U.S. law schools plunged to levels not seen since the 1970s, as students steered away from a career that has left many recent graduates loaded with debt and struggling to find work.
The American Bar Association said on Tuesday that the number of first-year law students fell 11% this year. So far, 39,675 full-time and part-time students enrolled in law school, nearly 5,000 fewer than in 2012.
That’s one student shy of 1977 enrollment levels, when the ABA reported 39,676 first-year students. The lowest previous tally was in 1975, when 39,038 students entered their first year of law school and there were only 163 ABA-approved schools (the current count is 202).
The 2013 drop extends a decline that is now in its third year. More than 52,000 would-be lawyers entered their first year of law school in 2010, an all-time high. Many of those students were thought to be seeking shelter from the economic tumult of the recession.
But even then the job market for newly-minted attorneys was contracting.
Many big law firms laid off junior lawyers during the downturn and slashed expenses as clients facing their own financial troubles pressed for discounts. Some lower-level legal tasks that firm associates used to do, such as document review, are now increasingly farmed out to contract attorneys or legal outsourcing companies that can do the work more cheaply.
“I think the collapse of the job market a few years ago was a surprise to the profession, and to law schools,” said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education.
The market remains challenging for recent graduates, some of whom emerge with loans that can total more than $150,000.
Those considering legal careers appear to be paying attention. This fall, approximately two-thirds of the 202 U.S. law schools accredited by the ABA reported declines in first-year enrollment. That slide exceeded 10% at 81 law schools, though the ABA has declined to say which ones.
Law school enrollment grew from the mid-1970s through the 1990s, with first-year enrollment ranging between about 39,000 and 44,000. Those numbers then began to climb more steeply in the early 2000s—for example, first-year enrollment jumped 7.46% in 2002.
“There was a presumption that the market for law school graduates was growing,” Mr. Currier said. “Back when things were ramping up—no one should expect that those numbers were going to be sustainable for a long time.”
The recent downswing has led some law schools to cut staff and trim faculty ranks as they try to balance budgets with fewer tuition dollars.
A handful have lowered tuition, largely through reducing the amount paid by out-of-state students. Some schools have relaxed admissions standards to keep up class size, while others have intentionally shrunk the number of students they admit so to preserve their standing in law school rankings that factor in entering students’ grades and test scores.
But the news isn’t all bad. For example, this year 27 law schools grew their first-year classes by 10% or more, according to the ABA.
The diminished demand also means less competition among applicants and future graduates, leading some industry observers to wonder whether it’s a smart time to apply to law school.
“Some schools may have corrected and are now in a position to increase their enrollment,” Mr. Currier said. “Some schools are still in the process of correction.”