A recent news story notes that 17% of Harvard’s first-year law students are international students. This statistic intrigued me. International students have long been a staple of LLM programs, but how many enroll and graduate from ABA-accredited JD programs?
The answer, it turns out, varies a lot from school to school. I used the ABA’s Standard 509 reports to count the number of “nonresident alien” students enrolled at each accredited law school. That number undercounts “international” students because it does not include foreign students who hold permanent resident visas. Nonetheless, it offers some measure of a JD demographic that has received little press attention. I explore here the presence of nonresident aliens in accredited law schools–although I will refer to these students as “international” students (a somewhat imprecise but friendlier term).
More than two-thirds of accredited law schools (71.2%) have at least one international student enrolled in their current first-year class. The number ranges from one (at 35 different law schools) to 89. The identity of that “most international” JD program may surprise you: it’s Detroit Mercy’s law school.
How did Detroit Mercy end up with a first-year class that includes 89 international students (44.3% of their class)? The foreign enrollment probably stems from their unusual joint degree program with the University of Windsor, a Canadian law school. Students enroll in both law schools and obtain both U.S. and Canadian degrees after three years of study.
Harvard has almost as many international students as Detroit Mercy enrolled in its first-year program: 82 or 14.6% of the class. (Remember that these figures, obtained from ABA reports, include only nonresident alien students.) Next comes Georgetown, with 44 international 1L’s (7.6% of the class), and then Columbia (40 international 1L’s, making up 10.2% of the class).
Other schools with a significant percentage of international students in their current first-year class include George Washington (7.6%), Emory (12.9%), Boston College (9.7%), Northwestern (10.2%), Cornell (9.0%), Minnesota (10.2%), Duke (7.7%), Washington University (7.0%), Case Western (9.8%), and North Dakota (20.2%).
But remember that many schools enroll no international JD students. Overall, international students make up just 3.0% of 1Ls nationwide.
Have the Numbers Grown?
Has the number of international JD students grown over the last five years? ABA data show that the absolute number of those students grew from 994 in 2011 to 1140 in 2016; that’s a 14.7% increase. The growth is even more noticeable when placed in the context of declining overall enrollment. In 2011, international students made up just 2.1% of first-year JD students. This year, international students comprise 3.0% of the first-year class. That’s still a small percentage–but it’s almost 50% higher than the percentage in 2011.
What Happens After Graduation?
I haven’t been able to find data on the career paths of international JD students, but I suspect they are attractive employment prospects. Most countries teach law as an undergraduate subject, so these graduates have completed a full course of legal training in both the U.S. and another country. They are eligible for bar membership in both counties, knowledgeable about at least two cultures, and (often) fluent in two or more languages. In a fluid, global economy, those are valuable assets–ones that most U.S. lawyers lack.
International JD grads are also likely to bring benefits to their classmates and schools. Lawyers have always relied on networks of colleagues in other cities and states; today they benefit from contacts in other countries as well.
What Does the Future Hold?
The Trump administration’s hostility to immigration may decrease the flow of international students to U.S. law schools. That would be a shame, because cross-border partnerships are increasingly important in both law and business. Rather than protect the U.S. legal profession, weaker international ties could marginalize us. We will know soon how the change in administrations affects the number of international applicants to law schools.
Some insiders, meanwhile, speculate that the rise of international JD students has cut applications to LLM programs. The JD requires considerably more investment than the LLM, but it can also pay much higher dividends. Most international students, moreover, completed their first law degree as undergraduates; if they enroll in a JD program, their total investment in higher education is not much more than that of a U.S. law student. Yet the international student will hold law degrees and licenses from two different countries; that’s an attractive prospect.
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