First-year law student enrollment drops 11 percent

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After two years of an uptick in new law school enrollment, the number of first-year law students at American Bar Association-approved law schools dropped this fall roughly to pre-pandemic levels, the annual ABA admissions report shows.

On Dec. 19, the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar released yearly aggregate admissions and other data, known as the Standard 509 report. While total school admissions remained relatively flat at 116,723 students this past fall, first-year enrollment (1Ls) dropped 4,698 students, or 10.98%, to 38,020.

In fall 2021, the first-year class spiked 12% from a year earlier to 42,718 students, a development attributed to fewer employment opportunities generated by, among other factors, the pandemic and a generally weak job environment. The level of this year's entering class is closer to the numbers seen for first-year enrollment in 2018 and 2019.

Bill Adams, managing director of ABA Accreditation and Legal Education, noted the data is geared toward providing consumer information to prospective law students and others and covers 196 ABA-accredited law schools. Three other law schools are in the process of closing and are not accepting new students.

"This series of public reports - including bar passage and employment reports to be released separately next year - provide important consumer information for students considering whether and where to attend law school and for others with an interest in legal education," Adams said.

The report underscores the growing popularity of non-J.D. programs among ABA-approved schools, such as the LL.M., masters and certificate programs that are not accredited by the ABA. Collectively, their enrollment jumped 14.7% last year, increasing to 24,134 students from 21,044 the year before. Counting the non-J.D. enrollment, the total number of students at ABA-approved law schools for fall 2022 totaled 140,857, up from 138,545, or an increase of 1.7%.

The council, which acts as an independent arm of the ABA, is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the national accrediting agency for programs leading to the J.D. degree. Under its rules, the section collects and reports data from approved law schools in several categories, covering admissions, tuition and living costs, financial aid, class and faculty demographics and other areas.