The incredible shrinking law school

One of the things that jumped out at me in my analysis on legal employment outcomes was the shrinking graduating class size. That started me to examine what's happening on a school-by-school basis.

I started with a quick qualitative look and saw wildly divergent stability. Thomas M. Cooley dropped from 1143 graduates in its Class of 2013 to 462 for the Class of 2016, a 60% decline. Florida Coastal saw its graduating class drop from 562 to 299. Two large, elite schools saw little change--Georgetown rose from 645 to 652; Harvard from 578 to 598.

But the decline has been largely across the board. I calculated the median graduating class size over the last four years. In 2013, it was 206--meaning half of law schools had graduating classes larger and half had smaller. Last year, however, it was down to 161. The decline is not isolated but quite widespread--probably not too much of a surprise given the market, but worth considering from the data.

Additionally, I thought I'd divide up schools into categories based on size--100 or fewer graduates, 101 to 200 graduates, and more than 200 graduates. The Class of 2013 had mostly large graduating classes--no surprise given the median of 206. 107 law schools saw graduating classes larger than 200, and another 80 were between 101 and 200. Just 11 schools were 100 or fewer--four of them flagship schools in rural states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming).

The Class of 2016, however, saw the number of schools with 100 or fewer graduates rise to 36. (The 36th-smallest graduating class in 2013 had 135 students.) And the number of schools with more than 200 grads dropped to just 67.

Law school downsizing comes with it all of the turbulence we've seen in media reports--faculty buyouts, closures, mergers, and the like--but this offers a display about why such pressure exists at the school-specific level.

We should expect at least some stability over the next few years: incoming class sizes have been very stable for the last three years, and early reports are that we'll see some such stability this cycle, too. (The quality of the class, and the resulting changes to bar pas rate as a result, are another matter.)