Law school enrollment surges amid national decrease

by Mary Ellen McIntire | Assistant News Editor

Media Credit: Elise Apelian | Senior Staff Photographer
A student enters Lerner Hall, the main building of GW Law School. Enrollment rose by 22 percent this year despite a national downturn in law school numbers.

The number of students who entered the GW Law School this fall swelled by about 22 percent, bouncing back after a massive decline and amid free-falling enrollment nationwide.

A total of 484 students entered the school this fall, including about 80 more full-time students than last year, according to the school's preliminary data. That increase – a surprising turnaround amid shrinking law school classes nationwide – is a positive sign for the No. 21-ranked school that saw application numbers plummet in the same year it lost its dean.

Still, because the law school hasn't released the incoming class' LSAT scores or GPA, or the total number of applications the school received last year, it's unclear if the school changed its admissions standards to attract a bigger class.

Out of this year's fall class, 436 are full-time and 48 are enrolled as part-time. Interim dean Gregory Maggs said in an email that an 80-person increase "is not a huge fluctuation," but made the school return to a more typical number.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Interim dean Gregory Maggs said the law school promoted its new law clinics to help draw in more students.

He added applicants may have been drawn to the school's two new buildings – a new clinic center and the Law Learning Center. He said the school would release its average LSAT score in October when it submits them to the American Bar Association.

Rich Collins, the associate vice president for law development, said the school considered GPA more than it has in the past, while lowering its LSAT score standards. He also pointed to the phenomenon that fewer applicants with high LSAT scores are applying to law schools, and said GW was also more aggressive with financial aid offers to attract students.

Collins said Maggs stressed the need for a larger class "to make the place run." A smaller first-year class strains law schools' finances with less cash from tuition, which was hiked up by 4.8 percent this year.

"We're not the kind of place where you go on a diet and decide you're a size two when you've been a size eight," he said.

Law schools, including at GW, started to see a drop in applications in 2011, after seeing a record number of students enroll in the fall of 2010.

A huge decline in demand for legal services caused law firms to cut back after the financial crisis, chilling the number of aspiring lawyers. Less than half of GW Law School Class of 2012 graduates worked in full-time, salaried positions, according to a National Association for Law Placement survey released last month.

Faculty said the size of this year's class was a return to normal for the school.

"Last year was the unusual year. We have just returned to the class size we have had for years before last year and the class size for which we are budgeted," law professor Richard Pierce said in an email.

But Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who wrote the book "Failing Law Schools," said the increased class size was "very surprising," considering the decrease nationally.

New York University enrolled a class of 440 students this fall, according to their website, down 10 students from the year before. The University of Virginia's class this fall fell from 356 students to 336 students.

Similarly to GW, Duke University increased their class size, enrolling just 1.4 percent more students this year than last. Vanderbilt University increased the size of its class by one person.

National data from the Law School Admission Council from Aug. 8 showed that applications for this fall were down 17.9 percent from last year, following a 15.6 percent dip the year before.

GW did not release the number of applications it received for this year's class because it is not finalized, said Liz Field, a spokeswoman for the school. Applications were due March 1.

A surge in enrollment likely will also mean larger class sizes, although former dean Paul Schiff Berman, who left the school last year to take on a position in the provost's office, previously defended smaller class sizes because they led to a "more intimate" environment.

A report from the American Bar Association blog last spring said law school deans should be concerned about the lowering enrollment, as application numbers significantly declined for two years.

Maggs said the school's student-to-faculty ratio is still low, and said offering a large number of electives helps keep classes small and personal.

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