Whittier Law School on Wednesday became the second law school in the past year to announce plans to shutter, leaving legal education pundits speculating as to if — or, more likely, when — the next school will collapse.
Whittier’s demise reflects the larger struggle legal education faces as enrollments have fallen and the entry-level legal job market stagnates. Adding to Whittier’s woes is an angry faculty that has taken to the courts to try and stop its closure.
Whittier’s closure likely could be the first of others, because its economic troubles are not unique, Caron said.
“There has been a thought that there might be some university presidents out there not wanting to go first, who feel their law school no longer makes financial sense but were hesitant to pull the plug,” he said. ...
“I do think we’ll see more schools go this route,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a non-profit group that advocates for better information for law school consumers. “When a college or university is subsidizing the law school, and the law school is a drain on their finances and reputation, it gives the university permission to pull the plug.” ..
It’s hard to know whether Whittier will spur a wave of law school closures, said David Yellen, former dean of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law and current president of Marist College. “Clearly there are a number of law schools that are only holding on because their universities are subsidizing them these days,” Yellen said. “Whether universities are wiling to do that very long-term—or whether law schools can realign themselves in a way that at least make them revenue neutral—is a challenging question that will ultimately determine how many future closures there are.”
The decision to close Whittier was likely a confluence of factors, including financial shortfalls, dismal bar pass and graduate employment rates, increased regulatory pressure from the ABA, high student costs, and falling enrollment. Those same factors are bearing down on a number of other low-performing law schools, legal educators said.
New student enrollment at Whittier plummeted 52 percent over the past five years to 132, according to ABA data. The school has already endured several rounds of faculty buyouts over the past decade. “There is no reason to believe that the number of applicants to law school will increase any time soon— and without a substantial increase in applicants, schools in this situation can do little to improve their prospects,” said Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law and author of the 2012 book Failing Law Schools.
“That’s a real toxic combination for students, and I would hope members of the board would focus on that and ask, ‘How are we improving students’ lives?’” Caron said. “When you look at those numbers, it’s hard to make the case that they should stay in business.”
Whittier Law School will close, it was announced Wednesday, and a group of law professors there have filed a temporary restraining order motion asking the Los Angeles County Superior Court to halt the decision.
While many law schools are struggling with enrollment and tuition declines, Whittier is the first one with ABA accreditation to shut down, the New York Times’ DealBook reports. No closure date has been set, but the law school will not be enrolling first-year students for the fall of 2017.
According to the law professors’ motion (PDF), which was noted at TaxProf Blog on Thursday, Whittier College’s board of trustees voted April 13 to shut down the law school. The filing claims that the law school “has almost never suffered an operating loss,” and notes that the college sold the law school campus in January for $13 million.
Law professors were told that the real estate sale money would be reinvested in the law school, the filing states. It also states that a buyout program was offered to faculty in 2015, and at the time the college assured faculty that it wanted long-term sustainability for the law school.
Around that time, the law school was told to decrease admissions, and some professors thought that the directive could have been to increase the law school’s quality, says Rachana Pathak. One of the plaintiffs, she serves as the law school’s associate dean for student and alumni engagement, and directs its Institute for Trial and Appellate Practice. “Now we think it was because they were setting us up for this closure decision,” she told the ABA Journal.
A 2016 task force comprised of Whittier law school and college faculty recommended against discontinuing the law school, for educational reasons. According to the court motion, the committee found the law school’s prospects for improvement to be “very favorable.” ...
“We’re not giving up. We want to use the lawsuit to effect positive change,” Pathak says. “The board is telling the public that they’re deeply concerned about the educational outcomes of the law school, and the 23 percent pass rate is an easy soundbite to point to.”
She admits that the percentage is disappointing, but claims that Whittier students eventually pass a bar exam “at high rates.”
“We brought this lawsuit because we think [the closure] is ultimately a financial decision to take resources,” Pathak says. “The resources are there to support this institution and they are not being allocated to support this institution. That’s really a problem.”