Whittier Law School Closes: Will We See a Domino Effect?

May 17, 2017

Many have predicted an eventual avalanche in the legal market. With the emergence of many new law schools over the past few decades, decline in student enrollment and applications, and the glut of attorneys in the market, combined with low employment, experts in the legal community have anticipated a landslide that would topple the landscape of our current legal education. Whittier Law School in California has become the first victim. The school’s Board of Trustees announced that the Law School would be shutting down last month making Whittier Law School the first American Bar Association (“ABA”) accredited law school to close its doors.

Currently there are 205 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States, and additional three with provisional status. This does not account for all law schools in the United States, however. Over 30 of the ABA-accredited schools have been accredited since 1990 by the ABA. While the 2008 recession provided law schools with a life-line in the form of higher applicants, the post-recession legal landscape has been brutal to these institutions.

Technically, Whittier Law School is not the first law school to shut down, but it is the first ABA-accredited school to completely end its legal program. There have been other institutions of legal education that have also faced negative outcomes: in 2014, Thomas Cooley Law School closed its Ann Arbor campus. In 2015, Hamline School of Law merged with William Mitchell College of Law. Furthermore, in 2016, Indiana Tech Law School closed its doors as well. These events are not considered official ABA law school closures as Thomas Cooley still has an active campus, Hamline is part of another school, and Indiana Tech only had provisional ABA-accreditation when it shut down.

With Whittier Law School’s closure, people fear more law schools may face a similar fate. Some suspect that there is a possibility of other schools, such as Valparaiso University, Thomas M. Cooley School of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, University of La Verne, Appalachian School of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law, Charlotte School of Law, and Arizona Summit Law School, meeting a similar fate due to decrease in student enrollment and bar passage rates.

These schools, and other law schools around the country, are facing a tougher financial situation because there are fewer law students applying. According to ABA statistics, there were 119,775 students enrolled in a Juris Doctor Program in 2014 compared to 128,710 in 2013. About two-thirds of law schools reported decreases in enrollment of first year law students. 2014 represented the smallest entering class since 1973. For 2016, the ABA reported law school enrollment at 97,265.

While some may balk at these figures or consider these statistics to be circumstantial trends of an ever fluid legal market, schools have already begun to find creative and alternative ways to endure. As previously mentioned, in 2015, Hamline School of Law merged with William Mitchell College of Law to form Mitchell Hamline School of Law. The merger prevented a law school closure and allowed for more stability in the Minneapolis/St. Paul legal education market. In addition, prior to the merger, William Mitchell launched the nation’s first, ABA-approved hybrid online law degree program. Also, in 2015, Pace Law School launched a first in the nation, a tuition matching program where it would match tuition rates for qualified out-of-state students at the respective in-state tuition rate.

Both State University of New York-Buffalo Law School and the University of Iowa College Of Law announced they would no longer require the entry-level LSAT examination for top performing students from their respective undergraduate schools. Id. In 2016, University of Arizona College of Law became the first law school to allow applicants to submit GRE test scores instead of the LSAT, and Harvard College of Law followed suit with a similar pilot program in 2017. These are just a few unique ways schools have begun to adapt to the changing times.

Whether this is just a cyclical ebb-and-flow, or a bubble bust, law schools are and will have to continue to find new ways to attract students for the sake of the schools’ financial well-being. Their leadership and ingenuity will determine whether they can withstand the coming storm. If there is to be an avalanche, then it also means a different landscape will be revealed.

Image source: Whittier Law School

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