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Law Schools See First Real National Enrollment Gains Since 2010

New student enrollment at the nation’s law schools increased 3 percent this fall, according to figures released by the American Bar Association Friday.

That represents the first measurable increase in the size of the first-year class since 2010—when new enrollment peaked at more than 52,000. The number of new law students at ABA-accredited law schools fell 29 percent between 2010 and 2015, before leveling off at about 37,000 for the next three years. This fall, 38,390 new students showed up on campus, which is 1,070 more than the previous year.

At the 20 California law schools included in the ABA data, 4,285 new students enrolled this fall, up by 85, or a bit over 2 percent, from the year prior. Among those schools with the biggest jumps in enrollment in the state were University of California, Irvine School of Law (44 percent increase to 229 1Ls), University of California, Davis School of Law (36 percent increase to 206 1Ls), Golden Gate University School of Law (27 percent increase to 237 1Ls), and the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law (27 percent increase to 193 1Ls).

Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego took the biggest dip in 1L enrollment among California schools. Its incoming class size fell nearly 73 percent to 59 this fall. The school agreed to suspend Spring 2019 enrollment altogether amid efforts to retain its ABA accreditation.

Enrollment at Stanford Law School held steady at 180 ILs and at University of California, Berkeley School of Law was up by about 3 percent to 313.

The overall boost is welcome news for legal academics, who for years have hoped in vain for a turnaround in legal education’s fortunes. Waning interest in a law degree forced many schools to reduce the size of their faculties and make other cutbacks. Five schools have closed in recent years or will soon shut down.

The 3-percent increase in new law students this year isn’t unexpected. Applicants to law school surged 8 percent last year, according to the Law School Admission Council, fueling speculation that law school is once again a hot ticket. The Trump administration and discord in Washington are contributing to the added interest in legal education, according to deans and admissions officers.

Some schools appear to have utilized the larger applicant pool as an opportunity to be more selective about the students they admit, said Jerome Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who studies enrollment trends. Put another way, schools opted to admit fewer students than they could have, given the increase in applicants in order to bring in classes with higher Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grades, he said.

Still, the boost in applicants caught some law schools by surprise. Some ended up with larger 1L classes than intended, which is a reversal from the days when admissions offices were scrambling to fill up seats. More than half of schools—122—reported an increase in the size of their first-year class, while 81 schools told the ABA that their 1L class is smaller than in 2017.

It’s not just J.D. programs that gained in popularity this year. Enrollment in non-J.D. programs, which includes LL.M. and masters programs, grew more than eight percent from 2017.