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Law School JD Enrollment Hits 42-Year Low

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 21, 2016 5:58 AM

Law school enrollments reached a 42-year low this year, while more women now attend law school than ever.

According to data released by the American Bar Association, 50.32 percent of the law students in ABA-accredited schools are women. It is the first time in the history of the ABA's annual reports.

While it is good news for gender equality in legal education, the report holds bad news for law schools in general. Enrollments dropped by almost 3,000 in 2016 to a total of 110,951. The last time enrollment was that low, it was 1974-75.

End of an Era?

This low enrollment may signal the end of a precipitous drop that started about six years ago. In that time, enrollments dropped almost 30 percent. The ABA Standard 509 Reports offer no explanation for the flux, but the numbers offer some hope for legal educators.

"Incoming 1L class sizes have stabilized over the last few years, hovering just over 37,000 new 1Ls," says Derek Muller, associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law.

Last year, reports showed that disappearing student loans may have played a part in the lower enrollments. Nine schools eliminated conditional scholarships, primarily in markets like Southern California.

Best Not Last

The downturn has affected law schools across the spectrum, resulting in various strategies to attract students. Some have focused more on financial aid and job placement, while others have responded by closing ranks.

"Top schools have made more substantial investments in financial aid in recent years," said Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University School of Law. He said his school also tightened admissions because it was "irresponsible" to keep taking in so many new students with fewer jobs available.

While law schools have struggled to attract new students, the latest ABA report showed improved enrollment in one area. Almost 600 more students signed up for LL.B and LL.M degrees in 2016, adding to a rapid increase in non-J.D's over the years that educators have wrestled with decreases in overall enrollment.

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