The number of students at American Bar Association-approved law schools remained steady this fall compared to a year ago, another sign of enrollment stability despite challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data released Dec. 18 by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar shows only slight fluctuations in the number of first-year and overall law school students. The 197 schools approved by the ABA to confer the J.D. degree reported total enrollment of 114,520 for the fall term — an increase of 1,638 students or 1.5%, from 2019. But the total number of first-year students fell by 81 students to 38,202, or a sliver of a percent lower than in 2019.
Law school enrollment experienced a sharp decline of 29% over a five-year period from 2010 to 2015 after the Great Recession. In recent years, however, the number of ABA-accredited law schools has dropped from 204 to 197 because of closures and other reasons, which means there are fewer schools to report totals.
Starting in March, law schools moved to online learning because of the pandemic, and many continued operating remotely or with a hybrid program this fall. The 2020 numbers suggest that the impact of the changes on enrollment has not been significant.
Bill Adams, managing director of ABA Accreditation and Legal Education, said the new data shows that while J.D. programs have leveled off, non-J.D. programs continue to grow at a brisk pace.
“A total of 21,292 students were enrolled in other than J.D. degree programs, such as LL.M., masters and certificate programs, representing a second consecutive increase of 7% from the previous year,” Adams said. “As expected, the number and range of those programs continue to increase, and enrollment increases have followed along with them.”
The council of the section is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the national accrediting agency for programs leading to the J.D. degree. Under its rules, the section collects and reports data from approved law schools in several categories, covering admissions, tuition and living costs, financial aid, class and faculty demographics and other areas.
Release of updated bar passage data for 2020, which is usually reported in March, will likely be delayed because of exam delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, employment outcomes for the class of 2020 might also be delayed beyond its usual April release for similar reasons.