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Law school enrollment plummets to 27-year low, ABA says

December 18, 2014

With the continuous news of a weak market for young lawyers, enrollment of first-year law students at accredited schools is at a 40-year low and overall enrollment is at its lowest in 27 years.

Coupled with the drop in Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, takers this year, the likelihood of a turnaround remains low.

The new statistics on law schools come from the American Bar Association, which this week released its annual enrollment data. According to the study by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, total law school enrollment at the 204 accredited schools is 119,775, a 6.9-percent decrease from last year and an 18-percent decrease from its record high in 2010. The number enrolled is the lowest since 1987, when there were 175 ABA-approved schools, 29 fewer than today.

The report also said there were 37,924 full-time and part-time students starting law school this fall, a 4.4-percent drop from last year and 28-percent decrease from 2010, when 52,488 students began law school, an all-time high.

The number of first-year students is the lowest since 1973, when there were only 151 accredited law schools.

William Hubbard, president of the ABA, said the numbers are “an indication that prospective students have read a lot of reports about the job market.”

Almost two-thirds of accredited law schools experienced declines in first-year enrollment, and at “64 law schools, 1L declines exceeded 10 percent,” the report said, referring to first-year drops. “At 25 schools, 1L enrollment declined by more than 20 percent. Twenty-five schools reported entering classes of fewer than 100 students.”

Not all schools saw enrollment drop. Sixty-nine had increases, and at 11 schools, which the ABA hasn’t named, enrollment of first-year students increased by more than 20 percent.

The Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, said the number of those taking the June exam dropped 9.1 percent from last year, and takers of the September test dropped 8.1 percent from the year before. The number taking the December test, given Dec. 6, hasn’t yet been released.

The enrollment declines have affected the credit ratings of law schools, in particular the stand-alone schools unaffiliated with universities.

“Law schools are continuing to experience credit risk associated with falling demand,” San Francisco-based Standard & Poor’s analyst Robert Dobbins said in an e-mailed statement. “The outlook on all of the stand-alone law schools S&P rates are currently negative in part due to this continued enrollment pressure.”

The graying of the legal market may eventually provide relief for some schools, said Hubbard, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP in Columbia, South Carolina.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but if I were looking at this more broadly, a large percentage of lawyers are baby boomers” who are beginning to face retirement, he explained. “Based on those statistics, and based on unmet needs, there is reason to have some optimism, although it’s hard to predict.”

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