Let's Take a Closer Look at the ABA's Law School Enrollment Data - Greedy Associates
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Let's Take a Closer Look at the ABA's Law School Enrollment Data

Yesterday, the ABA Section of Legal Education released another in a long line of law school demand-damning statistics: for the fall of 2013, the 202 ABA-approved JD programs enrolled 39,675 full-time and part-time students, a precipitous drop of 11 percent (from 44,481) year-over year, and calamitous drop of 24 percent from the historically-bloated fall 2010 numbers (52,488).

Are pre-law students becoming wise to the "law school scam" of $200,000 for a worthless degree? (We know, professor, the "esq." suffix makes up for it in "cultural cachet" for us first-generation college and law grads.)

Or is this simply an "ebb" in demand caused by a few years of over-enrollment?

Historically Bad Numbers?

It took some digging to find all of the past numbers, but the ABA has a chart covering through 2010, plus a different article showing year-over-year for last year. How do the numbers look for the last ten years?

Academic Year First Year Enrollment
2013-2014 39,675
2012-2013 44,481
2011-2012 48,697
2010-2011 52,488
2009-2010 51,646
2008-2009 49,414
2007-2008 49,082
2006-2007 48,937
2005-2006 48,132
2004-2005 48,239
2003-2004 48,867
2002-2003 48,443
2001-2002 45,070
2000-2001 43,518
2000-2010 Average 48,133
1990-2000 Average 43,395
1980-1990 Average 41,749
1970-1980 Average 38,059

Alright, so it's safe to say that there has been a marked decline over the past two entering classes, even when one considers the spike in enrollment in academic years 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. Even we assume that those years pulled in around 6,000 more students than the previous years' enrollment figures would have predicted, and that those numbers would affect future years' demand (think students skipping a gap year due to the economy), even from pre-spike years, there is a decline of nearly 10,000 first-year students.

Exponential Growth

Another interesting note from the dataset: after adding more than twenty ABA-accredited schools in the 1970s (but only a few thousand students), only twelve schools were added over the next two decades together.

Compare that with the 2000s, when 17 schools and 8,970 students were added.

No matter how you frame the numbers, there is one clear conclusion: law schools' unprecedented growth over the last decade has greatly outpaced any sustainable model of growth. With the lowest demand in four decades, and with one fewer student than 1977-1978, will we see thirty-seven fewer schools as well?

(Interesting Sidebar: the U.S. population has increased from 220.24 million in 1977 to 316.16 earlier this year. If law student enrollment grew at the same rate, we'd have 56,956 students. Maybe we do need more lawyers.)

Perhaps there won't be that mass closures, but for the schools on the bubble, a few more years' worth of depressed demand could mean closures, mergers, and other supply correction.

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