Law School Applicants and Enrollees
After several years of declining enrollment in legal education, the number of students enrolled at law schools accredited by the American Bar Association increased in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
In 2020, the number of students pursuing a juris doctor degree hit 114,520 – the highest number since 2014. This represented an increase of 1,638 students (or 1.5%) over the previous year. Still, it was far below the high of 147,525 enrolled law school students in 2010.
Enrollment is growing faster for students in non-JD legal programs in law schools – for example, those seeking master of law degrees and certificates. In 2020, there were 21,292 students in these non-JD programs – a 78% increase from 11,973 non-JD students in 2014.
For 2020, there were 63,384 law school applicants, 44,115 of whom were accepted to at least one school, according to the Law School Admission Council.
The number of applicants was up 1.5% from 2019, when there were 62,434 applicants. The 2020 numbers are far below the peak year of 2004, when more than 100,000 people applied to ABA-accredited law schools. The acceptance rate – the number of applicants accepted to at least one law school – declined slightly in the past year, from 70.2% in 2019 to 69.6% in 2020.
Why Law School?
More students pursue law degrees because of their interest in public service than for high salaries, according to a 2018 national survey, “Before the JD,” conducted by the Association of American Law Schools and co-sponsored by the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
The survey evaluated responses from 22,189 undergraduates at 25 four-year institutions and from 2,727 first-year law students at 44 law schools.
The most commonly cited reasons for attending law school were as a path to careers in politics, government or public service (44%); a passion for that type of work (42%); an opportunity to be helpful (35%), and to advocate for social change (32%). About 1 in 3 students (31%) said they were motivated by access to high-paying jobs.
Most students did not enter law school immediately after college. Two-thirds (65%) delayed law school for a year or more, compared to 1 in 3 (35%) who enrolled directly after college. Of those who postponed law school, just over half (53%) waited three years or more after getting their undergraduate degree.
More than half (55%) of the law students reported that they first considered going to law school before their first year of college. Roughly one-third (35%) first considered pursuing law school before high school.
Law School Demographics
Most students at ABA-accredited law schools in 2020 were women — and the gap between the number of male and female law students grew wider for the fourth straight year.
For decades, most law school students were white and male, but the gender gap began to narrow markedly after 1970. That year, 91% of all law students were men. The gap came close to vanishing in 2001 and 2002, when women were 49% of all law students, but then widened again.
In 2014, for the first time, there were more first-year female students than male students. Two years later, in 2016, women made up a majority of all law students at ABA-accredited schools for the first time. That year, 50.3% of all students pursuing JD degrees were female.
In 2020, 54.1% of all students at ABA-accredited law schools were women. In raw numbers, for the 2020-21 academic year, there were 9,610 more female JD students than male – 61,949 women and 52,339 men.
In fact, men are increasingly turning away from law schools while women are increasingly drawn to them. The number of men in ABA-accredited law schools has declined every year in the past decade — from 78,516 in 2010 to 52,339 in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of women has increased each of the past four years — from 55,766 in 2016 to 61,949 in 2020.
Law school classes have become gradually more diverse in recent years. In 2011, 25% of law students were minorities. In 2020, nearly one-third of all students pursuing a JD degree (32%) were students of color. Similarly, more than 40 years ago, in 1978, students of color occupied just 9% of first-year law school seats. In 2020, 61% of first-year law students were white, 13% Hispanic, 8% Black, 7% Asian, 4% multiracial and 6% were classified as race unknown or other.
Employment After Graduation
Unemployment among new law school graduates ticked up nearly two percentage points during the pandemic, according to data compiled by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
For the law school Class of 2020, unemployment 10 months after graduation was 8.3%. A year earlier, unemployment 10 months after graduation for the Class of 2019 was 6.4%.
In the Class of 2020, more law school graduates took jobs in public interest law and fewer took jobs in government, business and clerkships than a year earlier.
Despite these changes, nearly half of all law school graduates (48%) were working in law firms 10 months after graduation. That number has been relatively steady. It was 48.1% a year earlier. But it is up significantly from eight years ago, when 39.3% of the graduates in the Class of 2012 found work at law firms.
Roughly 1 in 10 graduates (10.2%) took government jobs. That is down from 11.5% for a year earlier. Another 9.3% of 2020 graduates took jobs in business and industry – down from 14.9% for graduates eight years earlier.
For several years, judicial clerkships have grown more popular as first jobs out of law school, but that number declined in the past year. Nearly 1 out of every 10 graduates in the Class of 2020 (9.5%) took a clerkship after graduation. Eight years earlier, that was 7.3%.
Meanwhile, the number of graduates who went into solo practice straight out of law school remains small. Less than 1% of all 2020 grads (0.9%) took the solo route – roughly the same as a year earlier, when it was 0.8%.
Bar Passage Rates
Despite the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, passage rates for the bar exam rose for the second straight year in 2020, according to data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which develops the test and collects data from states.
Among first-time test-takers, more than 3 out 4 (76%) passed the bar exam in 2020. That’s the highest passage rate since 2013, when 78% of all first-time test-takers passed. It also marks a significant rebound from 2018, when 69% passed, but is still below the peak of 2008, when 82% of first-time test-takers passed.
The pandemic may have affected participation in the bar exam. The number of people who took the exam for the first time dropped 10% in 2020 – from 44,367 in 2019 to 39,968 in 2020.
There was a significant difference in passage rates between first-time test-takers and repeat test-takers. Among first-timers, 76% passed the bar exam in 2020. Among repeaters, only 33% passed. Also, nearly twice as many took the exam for the first time compared to those repeating the test in 2020 (39,968 versus 20,816).
Passage rates varied widely based on where test-takers learned the law. The passage rate for all test-takers from ABA-accredited schools – both first-timers and repeaters – was 66% in 2020. Just 24% of students who attended non-accredited law schools passed the bar.
There was also a significant difference in passage rates among the 50 states. In 2020, Kansas had the highest passage rate among first-time test-takers at 89%. Rhode Island and Louisiana had the lowest passage rates at 60%.
State size did not relate to bar passage rates. New York, with more than 6,300 first-time bar exam takers, the most in the country, had a passage rate of 80% — slightly higher than the national 76% rate. But California, second in the nation with nearly 6,200 first-time test-takers, had one of the lowest passage rates at 67%.
Bar Passage Rates - Race, Ethnicity and Gender
White test-takers were more likely to pass the bar exam in 2020 than test-takers of other races and ethnicities, according to statistics released by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
Among white men and women taking the bar exam for the first time, 88% passed. By comparison, 66% of Black first-time test-takers passed, 76% of Hispanics, 78% of Hawaiians, 78% of Native Americans and 80% of Asians. Among all test-takers of color, the passage rate was 75%.
The gap narrows somewhat over time, including people taking the exam more than once. For example, for the Class of 2018, 93% of white test-takers ultimately passed the exam two years after graduation, as did 71% of Hawaiians, 79% of Blacks, 84% of Hispanics, 86% of Native Americans and 88% of Asians.
There was little difference in bar passage rates between men and women: 84% of men passed the exam on the first try in 2020, as did 83% of women.
This was the first time the ABA released bar exam results by race, ethnicity and gender.
The data was requested by many lawyers during debate in 2019, when the ABA changed bar exam standards. Under the new standard, ABA-approved law schools must have 75% of their graduates who take the bar exam pass within two years of graduation or face the potential of being found out of compliance.
Law School Debt
Many new lawyers postpone major life decisions like marriage, having children and buying houses, or reject them outright, because they carry huge student loan debts. Those debts make many young lawyers anxious, depressed and regretful.
Those are the conclusion of a 2021 survey by the ABA Young Lawyers Division and AccessLex. Expanding on a 2020 survey on the same subject, the new survey of more than 1,300 new lawyers – most in their 20s and 30s – showed that student loan debt forces the newest generation of lawyers to make major financial, personal and career sacrifices. The report will be released in August 2021 at ambar.org/debt.
Nearly all law school graduates are affected. More than 90% of the lawyers surveyed took out law school loans. Their average total education debt upon graduation – money owed from law school, undergraduate school and other education expenses – was $120,000.
For many young lawyers, student debt actually increases over time. More than a quarter (27%) said they have more debt now than when they graduated from law school. The median current debt at the time of the survey was $100,000.
Participants said heavy student loan debt affected virtually every aspect of their lives, including:
- Having children: More than one-third (39%) said they postponed or decided not to have children because of their debts. That was especially true for Asian lawyers (48%) and white lawyers (42%).
- Getting married: More than 1 in 4 (27%) said they postponed or decided not to get married because of their debts. That was especially true for white and Asian lawyers (both 39%).
- Housing: More than half (52%) said they postponed or decided not to buy a house because of their debts. That was especially true for Asian lawyers (64%) and Black lawyers (60%).
- Transportation: Nearly one-third (31%) said they postponed or decided not to buy a car because of their debt. That was especially true for Hispanic lawyers (35%).
- Career: More than half (55%) said salary factored more heavily in their job selection than they anticipated when they began law school. One-third (33%) said they took a job that is less focused on public service or doing good than they intended when they began law school because of debt.
The survey also found that student loan debt is hurting the mental health of young lawyers. Among the survey’s findings:
- Nearly two-thirds (65%) said student loan debts made them feel anxious or stressed in the last month.
- More than half (53%) felt regretful or guilty.
- Nearly half (44%) felt depressed or hopeless.
- Nearly two-thirds (65%) said they felt overwhelming or high stress about their personal finances in general.
In spite of the findings, a strong majority (61%) said they would still get a J.D. degree knowing what they know now, and most (55%) said they would attend the same law school. However, less than half (47%) agreed with the statement “My law school education was worth the cost.” And only 1 in 5 (22%) said they were happy with the loan counseling they received before graduation.
Law School Debt - National Averages
The average law school graduate had $145,500 in cumulative student loan debt in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The average was down slightly from $149,700 in 2012.
This is the most recent nationwide data available. The Education Department compiles data on graduate student debt every four years. The next report will be released in 2022.
Among all doctoral graduates in 2016, average cumulative debt for law students was in the middle of the pack. Average debt was higher for medical students ($246,000) and doctoral students in health science professional practices ($202,400). Average debt was lower for Ph.D.s in education, ($111,900), Ph.D.s in fields other than education ($98,800) and doctorates that are not Ph.D.s ($132,200).
From 2000 to 2016, average law student debt rose 77% – from $82,400 to $145,500. The average debt increase over the same period for medical students was 97%, and for Ph.D. students in fields other than education it rose 104%. The average debt increase was higher for law students than the increase for education doctoral students (66%) and nearly equal to the debt increase for doctoral students in other health science professional practices (75%).