Why flat enrollment is great news for law schools

By Tyler Roberts 

Flat is the new up. At least when it comes to law school enrollment.

For the past five years, law school administrators have held tight to the edges of their seats as law school enrollment dropped 30 percent to historical lows, forcing law schools to trim staff and make other budget cuts.

JD enrollment is now at its lowest point in 42 years — with only 110,951 students, compared to 147,525 in 2010. That represent close to $1 billion in lost tuition revenue.

But the free fall in enrollment has abated. First-year enrollment increased for the first time since 2010, albeit by a mere 36 students.

Though the 2016 growth rate is minimal, a whopping 0.1 percent, some in the legal industry are hopeful that enrollment is at least stabilized.

“It is good to see some stability,” said Derek Muller, an associate professor at Pepperdine School of Law, who follows law school enrollment trends on his blog, Excess of Democracy. “This likely represents a sort of new normal where we will not see too much of an increase or decrease next year, maybe indefinitely.” 

Of the 204 ABA-accredited law schools, 110 schools saw increased enrollment over the prior year, while 97 experienced a decrease in enrollment. 

Of the 97 law schools that experienced a decline in enrollment, Arizona Summit Law School saw the greatest drop — 46 percent. The University of South Dakota School of Law and the University of Richmond School of Law also experienced dwindling class sizes with declines in enrollment of 39 and 37 percent, respectively.

Charleston School of Law experienced one of the biggest boosts in enrollment. It leaped from 85 to 215 students — a growth of 153 percent. The rising enrollment numbers are a positive turning point for the law school, which experienced declining enrollment after its owners tried to sell the school. It was purchased by a local attorney who promised to convert it to nonprofit organization.

The last time law school enrollment was this low was 1975. But there were 47 fewer law schools at that time. The average law school has 543 law students, down from 737 in 2010 and 673 in 1975. The average enrollment has not been this low since 1970.

“I think it is good that we aren’t losing students,” Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, told the National Law Journal. “But I think there’s still probably too many law schools for this many students. My guess is some places will have to shut down or merge.” 

Indiana Tech Law School, a three-year old law school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, announced it will close at the end of this semester, despite the fact that enrollment increased from 13 to 41.