The number of people entering U.S. law schools is at its lowest point in 41 years, as the shrinking job market for young lawyers continues to chip away at demand for legal education.
Nationally, 37,924 people started their first year of law school in fall 2014 — down 4 percent compared with 2013, and down nearly 28 percent compared with the peak enrollment of 52,488 in 2010, according to data released this month by the American Bar Association. It is the fourth consecutive year of enrollment declines.
The drop-off can largely be attributed to a major retrenchment in the legal industry that began when the 2008 financial collapse forced the world’s biggest customers of legal services, large corporations, to slash legal spending. That, in turn, cut into the profits of large law firms, and they slowed hiring.
Although nationally the numbers are down, enrollment trends are more mixed at some of the Washington area’s law schools.
Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason all saw 2014 enrollment by first-year students grow compared with 2013: Georgetown by 7 percent, from 544 to 580 students; GWU by 12 percent, from 482 to 539 students; and George Mason by 9 percent, from 148 to 161 students.
However, American University Washington School of Law saw a 9 percent drop, from 473 to 429.
Enrollments by first-year students at both Georgetown and GWU are roughly at the same levels they were in 2010. Georgetown has slipped less than 2 percent, and GWU has actually increased by 3 percent. But to maintain those levels, school officials have had to step up recruiting efforts.
Georgetown, for instance, is offering more financial aid this year, increasing the number of students who fall into the category of “strongest students with the highest need” from just four a few years ago to 70 this year. The school is also putting more effort into interviewing potential students, which is thought to help with recruitment. Five years ago, Georgetown admissions officers and alumni interviewed 25 percent of the entering class. This year, they interviewed 56 percent.
At AU and George Mason, enrollment by “first years” is down 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively, compared with 2010.
Dan Polsby, dean at George Mason Law, said that while he expects enrollment to grow slightly over the next few years, it will not go back to pre-recession levels because the demand for legal services is not likely to rebound to pre-recession levels.
“There is just less demand and law firms are under stress,” he said. “So there is less hiring going on.”
The law school is adjusting accordingly. It stopped hiring for new tenured positions two years ago and has been allowing the staff to slim down through attrition. The student body will likely shrink going forward.
“We’re too big, we’ve got to get smaller and we intend to do it,” Polsby said. “We’re not talking about dramatically smaller . . . but we’re going to be a school of 500-some [students] instead of 600-some.”
George Mason raised tuition more aggressively over the last decade than its local competitors did, and that was a mistake, Polsby said. Last year, the school decided to freeze tuition for the following three years, and that helped the institution grow this year’s first-year class, he said.
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