Asian American Law School Numbers Decrease, Fastest Growing a Decade Ago

Across the board, J.D. enrollment is down, women outnumber men in school and COVID impacts unknown

Diversity changes at law schools since the Great Recession are showing signs of change. Asian Americans, who were for a time the fastest growing group in the legal profession, now make up the smallest percentage of students at law schools. More women are going to law school, but fewer are attending top-tier schools. And in general, the unknown effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the legal world could bring about even more unexpected changes.

A study, called “Who’s Going to Law School? Trends in Law School Enrollment Since the Great Recession,” sponsored in part by the American Bar Foundation gives a “comprehensive analysis” of trends in law schools around the country. Using two sets of data, one from the American Bar Association and the other from the Law School Admission Council, the study looks at how the demographics of law students have changed since the Great Recession. The study grew out of an earlier work from 2017, “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law,” which provided an account of Asian American experiences in the legal world. 

“The picture of J.D. enrollment is one of gradual increase up to the Great Recession, and since then, over the past decade, a period of decline,” said Goodwin Liu, associate justice of the California Supreme Court and coauthor of the report. J.D. enrollment has declined nearly 25% since the last peak in 2010, according to the study policy brief. Even recent enrollment, which some have called the “Trump bump” has been modest. Since 2016, the number of law school applicants has gone up by approximately 11%, but new matriculants have increased only 3%. Liu said when he checked the latest numbers from the LSAC on Thursday morning, law school applications were down, as were LSAT test takers. 

And even with the overall drop in applications, some groups are falling off faster than others. Since the Great Recession, the number of Asian Americans and whites in law schools has “comprised a smaller share of enrollment,” according to the brief. But, for Asian Americans specifically, enrollment has declined steeper than any other group.

The number of Asian American lawyers has been rising for the past four decades. The report estimates, however, that by 2030, the number will begin to stagnate. From 2011 to 2019 alone, the number of Asian American first-year students declined 28%, according to the ABA. Under LSAC data — which included multiracial students while the ABA study did not — the number was down 16%.

“What I want to highlight from this is that regardless of which way you count, whether it’s the ABA or LSAC way, Asians have experienced the steepest decline since the Great Recession,” Liu said. 

The report provides some guesses as to what is fueling those changes. This decline may be due to Asian Americans having bigger concerns about financial security when choosing a career, or “because they disproportionately lack encouragement toward law,” according to the brief. In addition, the brief notes that “recessionary conditions” from COVID-19 may further worsen these trends.

This movement toward stagnation is the opposite of the prior 25-year trend where “by far” the fastest growing group in the legal profession was Asian Americans, Liu said. 

Priya Purandare, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association said Asian Americans are not only the fastest growing population in the legal profession but in the country at large, and this trend of declining Asian American enrollment at law schools is made “all the more significant — and frankly, alarming.”

She said the study shows an issue with pipeline development, she added. She said she wondered why Asian American high schoolers or college students did not see the legal profession as a viable career path. “For a multitude of reasons, this study tells us that we need to intervene earlier to mitigate this trend,” she said, suggesting working with school counselors as one way of engaging Asian Americans.

“We need to encourage, mentor and support students to their legal career, and continue to support them throughout their professional life. If we don’t, we could potentially miss out on the diverse experiences, background and knowledge of members of our community,” Purandare said.

One of the points raised by the brief is that the number of international students enrolled in programs has increased significantly in recent years, mainly at upper-tier law schools. For the past decade, enrollment of international Asian students has increased while Asian American enrollment has fallen. But the impact of COVID-19 could affect the number of international students as well.

Women have for the past few years outnumbered men in law school, according to the brief. However, women are “disproportionately enrolled” in lower-ranking schools, which have lower rates of bar passage and post-graduation employment, according to the report. “That trend looks to continue, as men continue to decline even as women are increasing,” Liu said. For groups such as Hispanics and blacks, the number of women outweighs the number of men, while in whites it is close to even, Liu added.

“The majority status of women in law school is almost wholly due to the substantial predominance of women among Asian, Black and Hispanic students, the report states. However, “Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately enrolled in lower-ranked schools. Further analysis is needed to determine how many of these students go on to graduate, pass the bar and practice law.” 

The report warns that the changing racial and ethnic makeup of recent enrollments be interpreted cautiously given the “indebtedness and opportunity costs” students have attending law school.

Looking toward the next decade, law school enrollment could decline further depending on the impacts of the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19, according to the brief.

In addition, the number of law students identifying as multiracial is increasing, according to the brief. 

In turn, this creates challenges for data collection and reporting. “The ABA data, which are the most widely cited, report all non-Hispanic students who identify as multiracial in a separate category (“Two or more races”). Thus, the ABA data on Asian, black, and white students will increasingly provide an undercount of those groups, as the number of students in the “Two or more races” category continues to grow,” the report states. 

— Avery Martinez

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