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New Study Explores the Changing Diversity of Law Students Since the Great Recession

May 28, 2020, Press releases

CHICAGO, May 28, 2020 – Enrollment in law school has declined by 25% over the past decade; there are now more women than men pursuing law; and Asian Americans, once the fastest-growing group in law schools, have experienced the steepest decline in recent years. These are among the findings of a new American Bar Foundation (ABF)-sponsored study of law student demographics, titled Who’s Going to Law School? Trends in Law School Enrollment Since the Great Recession (forthcoming in the U.C. Davis Law Review).

The study, authored by Miranda Li, Phillip Yao, and California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, provides a comprehensive analysis of recent U.S. law school enrollment trends since the economic downturn and financial crisis of the late 2000s.  “The study provides a fresh and thorough empirical foundation for discussions of diversity in the legal profession,” said Justice Liu, “and it lays the groundwork for examining future trends in enrollment and diversity in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The study examines enrollment data by gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality from 1999 to 2019, and pays particular attention to Asian Americans, building on a 2017 report, A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law (Portrait Project 1.0), also coauthored by Justice Liu.

The new study’s findings include the following:

  • Total enrollment in law school has declined by almost 25% since the recession. Despite a recent increase, enrollment seems unlikely to rebound to the pre-recession levels.
  • Women have outnumbered men in law school since 2016, and the recent uptick in total enrollment is entirely attributable to more women pursuing law.
  • Since the Great Recession, Asian Americans and Whites have comprised a smaller share of enrollment in law schools. Asian American enrollment in particular has declined more steeply than any other group since the Great Recession. After rising for four decades, the number of Asian American lawyers is projected to stagnate beginning in 2030.
  • African Americans and Hispanics have also comprised a larger share of enrollment since the Great Recession. However, women, African American students, and Hispanic students are disproportionately enrolled in lower-ranked schools with lower rates of bar passage and post-graduation employment. As a result, it is unclear to what extent the changing diversity of law students will translate into greater diversity in the legal profession.
  •  The number and percentage of multiracial students and international students in the J.D. program have grown. These trends have particular salience for Asians and Asian Americans, and they present increasingly serious challenges for collecting and reporting demographic data.

“The demographics of law students have changed significantly over the past decade, and understanding these changes is essential to building a more diverse and inclusive legal profession,” said Justice Liu. “We may see more big changes over the next decade, depending on the depth and duration of the economic slowdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

“As a part of the ABF’s Portrait Project 2.0 research program, this scholarship helps to shed critical light on the shifting general demographics of law students and Asian American enrollment trends in particular,” said Ajay K. Mehrotra, Executive Director of the American Bar Foundation. “Asian Americans are often an invisible minority in contemporary discourse on diversity, and this study provides a deeper exploration of the empirical reasons for the current challenges faced by the Asian American legal community.”

A full draft of the study is available at

Read the law school enrollment policy brief.

About the American Bar Foundation

The American Bar Foundation (ABF) is among the world’s leading research institutes for the empirical and interdisciplinary study of law. The ABF seeks to expand knowledge and advance justice through innovative, interdisciplinary, and rigorous empirical research on law, legal processes, and legal institutions.  To further this mission the ABF will produce timely, cutting-edge research of the highest quality to inform and guide the legal profession, the academy, and society in the United States and internationally. The ABF’s primary funding is provided by the American Bar Endowment and the Fellows of The American Bar Foundation.




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