PORTLAND, Maine — The number of students entering law schools nationwide dropped below 40,000 this fall to its lowest level since 1975 — an 11 percent decrease from 2012.
That trend has not affected enrollment at the University of Maine School of Law, where class size has been relatively stable the past few years, according to law school officials.
“The quality and size of Maine Law’s first-year classes have remained steady over the past three years despite a decrease in applicants that mirrors national trends,” Dean Peter Pitegoff said in a recent email. “Our law school has maintained the number of students in our entering class, while maintaining our high standards in terms of undergraduate academic performance, diverse backgrounds, experiences and standardized test scores.”
This fall’s nationwide law school enrollment of 39,675 represents a 24 percent decline from the all-time high in 2010 of 52,488 first-year students, according to an annual survey conducted by the American Bar Association. The size of the entering class at Maine Law has averaged 88 over the past 10 years, with 91, 87 and 86 students matriculating in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively.
A decrease in applications to Maine’s only law school more closely mirrors national trends, according to figures provided by Maine Law. Applications slipped 10 percent nationwide in 2011 and were down 15 percent in Maine; decreased 14 percent nationwide in 2012 and 6 percent in Maine; and fell 13 percent nationally in 2012 and 15 percent in Maine.
“Fewer people have applied to Maine Law in recent years for the same reason that fewer people have applied to all law schools,” Pitegoff said Tuesday in an email. “The 2008 recession had a negative impact on the job market for lawyers, as with many other fields, and law school graduates faced a very challenging start to their legal careers. Combined with high tuition cost and a wave of negative publicity about law schools, changes in the legal profession discouraged many applicants.
“While too early in the 2014 process to know this year’s numbers, the number of applicants who are Maine residents is substantially higher than last year at this time,” the dean continued. “The number of applicants from outside New England appears to be holding steady at this point but, again, it is too soon for any conclusion.”
Seventy-five percent of this year’s entering class at Maine Law are from Maine and 25 percent are from out of state. The majority of the school’s graduates practice in Maine but Pitegoff said he did not have exact numbers.
Tuition at Maine Law for the 2013-2014 school year was $22,290 for Maine residents for full-time students. For full-time students who are residents of other New England states or live in Canada, tuition was $30,420. For all other full-time students, it was $33,360. Additionally, full-time students pay $1,270 each year in mandatory fees.
Maine residents taking fewer than 12 credits pay $743 per credit hour. Students from other New England states pay $1,014 per credit hour while all others pay $1,112 per credit hour.
Keeping enrollment steady at Maine Law is important because members of Maine’s bar are reaching retirement age, according to Pitegoff. About 20 percent of the attorneys in Maine are over the age of 60. In the state’s five most rural counties, more than half the attorneys are over 60, he said.
The Maine Department of Labor projected that there would be a total of 74 openings for lawyers each year between 2010 and 2020. Of those, 54 would be replacement openings and 20 would be new positions. The average hourly wage in 2011 was listed at $49.04 compared with the national hourly wage of $54.21 per hour for attorneys. The figures do not include self-employed attorneys.
“The good news is that the job market for lawyers is improving,” Pitegoff said Tuesday. “In Maine, particularly with an aging bar, the number of available jobs for lawyers is projected to grow over the next seven years — twice as many positions projected than the projected number of Maine Law graduates. And, our graduates are increasingly using their legal degree and training in business, nonprofit organizations, and public service.”
Of the 5,259 attorneys licensed to practice in Maine, 37 percent graduated from Maine Law, according to the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar. Of those 1,959 graduates, 87 percent live in Maine.
“The fact that we have held steady, in this era of increased competition, speaks well of the quality of our faculty, our dedicated staff, a supportive environment and our emphasis on the practical skills that students need to succeed,” the dean said.
Pitegoff attributed the school’s success at maintaining a relatively steady enrollment to its focus on recruiting students from universities and colleges in Maine. He also said Maine Law works to recruit students who graduated from high school in Maine but attended college out of state.