- The number of first-year law students is up more than 9% nationally
- There will be more law graduates competing for jobs in 2024
(Reuters) - If the law school corridors are feeling a bit crowded this fall, it’s not your imagination.
First-year enrollment is up at most campuses following a blockbuster admissions cycle that saw the number of applicants jump by nearly 13%. At least 17 law schools have welcomed 1Ls classes a quarter or more larger than last year.
The American Bar Association won’t release official enrollment data until December, but more than half of accredited law schools have self-reported their new class numbers as of Sept. 17. Among those schools, the total number of 1Ls is up more than 9% compared to 2020, according to figures compiled by law school admissions consultant Mike Spivey.
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“I think for a lot of schools, we really didn’t take into account this unique cycle with the increased number of LSATs that were administered, and the overwhelming response of students excited about starting law school,” said Mathiew Le, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Texas School of Law, which aimed for an incoming class of 300 and ended up with 419 new students. “For many schools, including us, our projections really did not match what the reality was.”
While many programs can accommodate the influx, it’s not clear that the legal job market has room for more fresh Juris Doctors, warned Law School Transparency Executive Director Kyle McEntee. He said law schools risk making the same mistakes they did during and after the 2008 recession, when enrollment grew as legal job opportunities were contracting.
“It does not seem to me that the entry level labor market can handle this many 1Ls,” McEntee said. “Schools should have continued to decrease enrollment, at least a little bit.”
Wake Forest University School of Law has notched the biggest reported percentage increase so far, going from 88 1Ls last year to 168 this year—an increase of nearly 91%. Executive director of admissions Branden Nicholson said that marks a return to the norm for Wake Forest, which purposefully reduced 2020's incoming class to offset a historically large 1L class the previous year.
The Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University is next with a 74% increase in first-year students, followed by Vermont Law School's 72% jump.
Among the so-called T-14 leading law schools, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School has a 1L class that is 24% larger than last year, while 1L classes at both Duke Law School and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law are up 18%. Cornell Law School’s new first-year class is 14% larger.
The University of Texas School of Law’s 42% increase is the largest so far among the 20 highest ranked schools by U.S. News & World Report. No. 22-ranked University of Notre Dame Law School, which faced criticism in the spring when it warned admitted students that seat deposits were higher than expected and that spots would be allocated on a first-pay, first-served basis ahead of the deposit deadline, ended up with a 1L class that is 18% larger.
Texas can easily accommodate the larger 1L class, Le said. New student enrollment has fluctuated between about 300 to more than 500 students over the past two decades, he noted. It has added two legal writing instructors for this year’s class.
“The most recent graduating class was about 380 students,” Le said. “So the difference between the most recent graduating class and this year’s incoming class is about 40 students. It hasn’t really changed the dynamics of the law school, because historically we’ve been able to handle a much larger class size.”
Le said many new Texas 1Ls this year had questions about their employment prospects. Data from previous years showed the school's graduate employment rate held fairly steady even when it had significantly larger classes, a good sign for this year, he said.
Beyond employment, increased demand for a J.D. this year may have raised the bill for class of 2024 students, McEntee said. With so many applicants, some schools were likely less willing to negotiate scholarship offers or may have held back some of their available financial aid, he said. That could further exacerbate legal education’s financial inequalities. Studies have shown that Black and Latino students on average pay more for their law degrees than do their white classmates.
“It’s really frustrating, after a decade of working on this, to see schools making choices that restart the cycle of over-enrollment,” McEntee said. “This was all foreseeable.”