Don't call it a comeback, but legal education is doing things it's never done before. And one of those is educating non-JD students at a record rate.
When I recently noted the decline in LSAT takers and likely decline in prospective applicants and matriculants, I was careful to emphasize that this was a decline in the JD student pool. Legal education, however, is broader than simply educating JD students. It includes LLM programs, SJD programs, and other kinds of master's or law-related education.
Commentators like Bill Henderson have noted that law schools must adapt to a dynamic legal practice, including the recognition that the legal services industry is much broader than simply the practice of law by licensed attorneys. Law schools have responded. They are offering a broad array of non-JD options, which are not only enticing record counter-cyclical enrollment, but are also an increasing percentage of the school's enrollment.
The chart below, derived from ABA data (PDF), shows the last 25 years of non-JD enrollment as a percentage of law school enrollment.
Non-JD enrollment was in the 4-5% range until around 2000, when it increased to around 5-5.5% for the next few years, and has risen each year since 2007. In the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 academic years, non-JD students were 6% of all law school enrollment. In 2010-2011, it was 6.2%; in 2011-2012, it was 6.5%; and in 2012-2013, it was 7.4%.
Part of that recent increase is, of course, relative. The non-JD percentage appears higher in the last two academic years in particular simply because of the significant drop-off in JD enrollment (from about 147,500 in 2010-2011 to 139,000 in 2012-2013). But it's also higher in absolute terms, too. Consider the last 10 years.
In 2003-2004, there were around 7700 non-JD students enrolled in law schools. That number was relatively steady for several years, but increased to 8300 in 2007-2008; 9100 in 2008-2009; nearly 9800 in 2010-2011; over 10,000 in 2011-2012; and just over 11,000 in 2012-2013.
A rejoinder may be, "Well, more JD graduates, in the face of an extremely poor economy, are being shuttled into LLM programs, which inflates the non-JD enrollment numbers." Perhaps. But there are a few reasons that likely does not explain the entire increase.
First, it used to be the case that students enrolled in non-JD degrees were "counted" in employment statistics, which gave schools an incentive to encourage students to attend LLM programs. That is no longer the case, and it has been on the radar of law schools for at least a couple of years. Schools cannot "inflate" employment statistics by "hiding" students in LLM programs. Instead, enrollment in non-JD programs by JD graduates is, in all likelihood, because of a genuine belief that such a degree would help the graduate succeed, not solely to postpone employment.
(Admittedly, some JD graduates may still pursue LLMs to avoid a challenging employment market. But if the downturn in JD applicants reveals anything, it is that there is some information communicated to prospective students in legal education, and that they are responding. Perhaps there is not enough information about the effectiveness of LLM programs for these matriculants. But, as the next couple of points show, there are additional factors to suggest this is not the case.)
Second, schools have been developing degree programs specifically for non-lawyers. If we use crude terms and call law school a "product," then the legal education "industry" has "innovated," responded to the "market," and developed a new "product."
The "Master of Studies in Law" is one such degree. These one-year degrees offer familiarity with the law but not a full-out JD experience. (In fact, they often expressly prohibit those with a JD from applying.) NYU offers one in tax for accountants, economists, and tax professionals. Yale suggests that its preferred student is a scholar or a journalist who wants to learn more about the law. Northwestern has developed a Master of Science in Law for engineers, scientists, and medical professionals. And there are many more.
Third, American education is one of our leading exports. It is perhaps no surprise that law schools are providing a "product" that is increasingly attractive to foreign-educated attorneys. Recent New York and California bar show increasing numbers of foreign-educated attorneys who have studied in American law schools take the bar.
The downturn in JD applicants has a significant effect on law schools. But educating JD students is not the sole thing that legal education does. And it is important to note that law schools are, to some degree, innovating in this area and attracting many more non-JD students than at any time in history.