First-year enrollment in America’s law schools is at its lowest point in forty years, according to new data from the American Bar Association (ABA).
In the fall of 2014, the 204 ABA-approved law schools had a total first-year enrollment of 37,924. That’s a dip of 4.4. percent from 2013, and a huge drop of over 27 percent from 2010. It also represents the lowest number of new students since 1973, when there were over 50 fewer law schools and the U.S. population was smaller by about 100 million.
Total enrollment is, for the time being, slightly better. The 119,775 students enrolled today represent the lowest number since 1987, and a 17.5 percent drop from 2010’s peak.
Law school, long a popular choice for those seeking a ticket to the upper middle class, has seen its popularity take a beating from a perfect storm of bad developments. Among the most pressing issues is cost. The average law graduate now leaves school with over six figures of debt and the total cost of attendance at a top school can easily surpass $300,000.
Such high debt loads may be manageable if gradates were all able to get high-earning jobs, but the opposite is true. Instead, the job market for lawyers is atrocious, with only two-thirds of 2013 graduates finding a job that requires a JD within nine months of graduation. Of those who do find jobs, less than half land the coveted “biglaw” positions at large firms that pay the six-figure salaries needed to pay off enormous student loans.
The tougher environment for lawyers isn’t just reducing the number of law students, but also their quality. In 20 different states in 2014, the bar exam passage rate fell by at least five percent, suggesting that current graduates are simply less intellectually prepared than their forerunners. The most academically-gifted students, it seems, are turning to other fields, like finance, consulting, and technology, rather than hopping aboard the sinking ship of law.
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