Paul L. Caron

Thursday, February 19, 2015

W&L Law School Permanently Reduces 1L Class to 100 (Down 47% From 2012), Eliminates 6 Faculty and 6 Staff Positions, Cuts or Freezes All Faculty Salaries, and Invades Corpus of Endowment

W&L Logo (2014)Washington & Lee School of Law Strategic Transition Plan:

n response to the changes in the legal profession and legal education nationally, Washington and Lee's School of Law has adopted a proactive approach to stabilize the school's enrollment and financial structure without sacrificing its special strengths. The University's senior administration, in consultation with a working group of faculty and administrators within the law school and a task force of trustees, has developed a strategic initiative that is now being implemented after being presented to the Board of Trustees at its winter meeting this month.

As outlined in the bullet points below, Washington and Lee's law school intends to protect its core values, including its emphasis on educating students for professional integrity, as well as its defining characteristics of personalized attention, strong student-faculty relationships, and an innovative curriculum. At the same time, the financial framework will enable the school to return to self-sufficiency by the 2017-18 academic year.

Highlights of the Plan

  • Beginning with the 2015-16 academic year, the school will enroll entering 1L classes of about 100 students, resulting in a full-time student body of about 300. For comparison's sake, the current law school student body is 374 and includes the largest third-year class in school history. The Class of 2017, which entered last fall, had 101 members.
  • Tuition will increase at an annual rate of 2 percent per year.
  • Financial aid, which will continue to be allocated beyond historical norms, will gradually return to sustainable levels after a transition period.
  • In October 2014, the Board of Trustees authorized an increase in the payout from the law school's endowment income to 7.5 percent through 2017-18. This will add about $3 million to the law school budget in 2015-16.
  • The goal for the Law School Annual Fund, which provides unrestricted operating funds, has been increased to $1.5 million for 2014-15.
  • The current student-faculty ratio (9:1) will be preserved, but with smaller enrollments the allocation for faculty compensation will be reduced by about 20 percent (equivalent to six positions) and will be achieved through attrition over the four-year period. In addition, some senior faculty salaries will have a one-time salary reduction of 2 percent with salaries frozen for all faculty during the three-year period. 
  • Six administrative and staff positions will be reduced over a five-year period, and there will also be budget reductions for visiting and adjunct faculty.
  • Operating budgets will be reduced by 10 percent in 2015-16 with the exception of the library budget, which will grow by 2 percent.
  • Although the financial model currently shows operating deficits for 2014-15 through 2017-18, the law school budget is projected to be back in balance by the 2018-19 academic year.
  • The senior administration will closely monitor progress of the plan's effectiveness in terms of not only the financial results but also educational quality benchmarks. Two of the key quality benchmarks will be bar passage rate and job placement success. Changes implemented in 2013-14 have already shown significant improvements in these two categories- W&L law graduates achieved a 90 percent bar passage rate among those who took the bar for the first time in 2014 (an increase of seven percent over the previous year) and the most recent job placement statistics show just more than 70 percent of the members of the Class of 2014 were employed full-time in law-related positions (an increase of 5 percent over 2013 and 13 percent over 2012). 

Washington & Lee tumbled to 43 in the 2015 U.S. News Law School Rankings, down from 26 in 2014 and 24 in 2013.  (Hat Tip: Greg McNeal.)


Legal Education | Permalink


The usual class size at W&L was about 130. The class of 2012 was unusually large. The class of 2011 was 121 students. "Down 47% from 2012," while technically accurate, largely overstates this reduction.

Posted by: Clarification Needed | Feb 19, 2015 2:29:34 PM

Washington & Lee's biggest problem is yield. According to their website they made 1011 offers for the class of 2017, and the class size was 101. That's a 10% yield. This is worse than any law school yield for the class of 2016. (Cal-Davis 11%)

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Feb 19, 2015 2:46:09 PM

This was the law school with a new curriculum that everyone else was to follow.

Posted by: mike livingston | Feb 20, 2015 4:29:20 AM

W&L's central campus leadership should be praised for dealing with the situation so openly and apparently in a planned and rational way. More generally, this episode raises interesting questions of the extent to which a university should subsidize its professional schools. My sense is that W&L's campus leadership has long had the philosophy that a law school should earn its own keep. That seems a reasonable position. Why should undergraduate tuition subsidize an elite professional degree?

Posted by: Jason Yackee | Feb 20, 2015 4:36:55 AM


I've never seen anyone argue that undergrads should subsidize professional schools. The only reason a university would float a professional school for a couple years is the belief that the professional school will soon rebound and resume subsidizing the university. Whether that expectation is reasonable is another question.

Posted by: D+ | Feb 20, 2015 6:28:57 AM

"My sense is that W&L's campus leadership has long had the philosophy that a law school should earn its own keep. That seems a reasonable position. Why should undergraduate tuition subsidize an elite professional degree?"

What a remarkably ignorant and one-sided statement.

Why should law schools fund non-law school related university projects and subsidize non-law programs, as they have done for decades during the fat years? And given those facts, why shouldn't parent universities in turn help the law schools during these troubled times? I suppose that the former is OK, but the latter not, according to the double standard du jour.

Posted by: Rob T. | Feb 20, 2015 6:33:00 AM

As noted above, W&L has historically enrolled classes of about 120 to 130 students.

What the school has also done in the past was to offer a law degree from a private school that cost about as much as many in-state publics. This attracted a lot of students, both in applications and yield. Tuition has doubled in the last ten years.

Posted by: bridget | Feb 20, 2015 2:43:40 PM

It seems reasonable (and necessary) for a central campus to subsidize a law school temporarily in times of downturns in the legal market, in order to avoid demoralizing disruption, layoffs and the like. But it seems a lot harder to justify a subsidy longer-term, as the benefits of a law degree are largely private (being captured by the degree-holder). And if you don't think a law degree confers value on the degree holder (cue debate over the “$1 million JD”), then I am not sure we would want central campus to encourage more people to get one by artificially lowering prices. Maybe a public (state-funded) law school can justify a long-term subsidy to its law school on the theory that the University’s mission is in part to subsidize the state's provision of low-cost legal services (public defenders and the like--though perhaps a better way for the state to subsidize public defenders and the like would be for the state to subsidize them directly through higher salaries), but for a private school like W&L it would seem really odd to say that part of their mission is subsidizing public-sector lawyers. A law school seems peripheral to W&L’s core mission, which is providing undergraduates with an elite liberal arts education.

Anyway, what I admire in W&L's approach here is that it seems aimed at providing a long-term solution (financial stability) through a clear, apparently well-thought-out plan (except for the bit about the library). Whether the plan will succeed, who knows.

Posted by: Jason Yackee | Feb 21, 2015 6:10:34 AM