After you make the big decision to apply to law school, the exciting search begins for the right school. In the past, you would look to rankings, research costs of attendance, and study employment outcomes. (For great posts on these topics, read Amanda Gernentz Hanson’s Resources for Deciding Where to Apply for Law School and Ariel Salzer’s How to Decide Which Law School is Right for You.) But these days, there is a new consideration for the law school applicant – the survival of your target law school.
Since the 2008 recession, law school budget cuts and other warning signs have foretold trouble for some law schools. Despite shrinking applicant pools and dipping bar exam passage rates during this period, law school closures had remained a relatively unheard of phenomenon. But for law schools like Thomas M. Cooley Law School – Ann Arbor (closed, 2014), Indiana Tech Law School (closed, 2017), and Whittier Law School (not accepting future applicants, 2017), there was no weathering the storm. Most recently, the Charlotte School of Law announced its immediate closure. Each story is different, but struggling law schools seem to have some similarities. When assessing the survival strength of a law school, consider the following factors:
In such turbulent times, being a new law school is tough. Indiana Tech Law School closed after only four years of operations. Even seemingly well-funded young law schools may be more risky than more established schools. For example, part of Indiana Tech’s wrap up of its law school is deciding what to do with the newly constructed $15 million law school building. Charlotte School of Law was a for-profit law school founded in 2006. Aside from persistent consumer transparency questions, for-profit schools lack the financial support and reputational heft that shelter university-affiliated law schools.
If competitive application numbers continually drop, law school administrators are left with no easy answers. Do they cut the number of 1Ls to keep their academic standards high or do they cut academic standards to keep tuition coffers full? Either decision can lead to problems that shake the financial viability of the law school. Lowering academic standards—accepting lower LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs—will hurt the school’s U.S. News and World Report Ranking and potentially hurt its bar passage rates down the line, but a shrinking enrollment does not inspire confidence and cuts off tuition-generated income.
Bar passage Rates
Bar passage rates are a key indicator of the quality of students attending the law school. Applicants want to believe that if they study the law at a school for three or four years that they will have a good shot at passing the bar. Whittier Law School had a 22 percent bar passage rate for its home-state California bar exam when the decision was made to cease operations. Bar passage rates could function as the product and/or the cause of a limited applicant pool—the cause and effect of many of these factors overlap.
If enrollment shrinks or the school has to spend more money to get students in the door, law school budgets can begin to tighten. If a law school is in such a position, budget cuts are soon to follow. If you see a law school’s programs, like journals or specialty institutes, being cut, it could be a warning sign of more budgetary issues to come. Cuts could just be a necessary realignment of spending priorities given a new budgetary normal. It is hard to distinguish between healthy cuts and troubling cuts, but seeing a law school in an apparent budget crisis should certainly warrant some follow-up research. Even if the school is not forced to close, it is important to consider whether you want to spend your law school career somewhere that is struggling to keep the lights on. (I can personally attest that having your journal program cut without warning due to budget tightening can significantly impact your law school experience.)
In the case of the Charlotte School of Law, American Bar Association (ABA) accreditation probation paved the way for its closure. Charlotte School of Law was on probation for failing to disclose required information to students. For a definitive list of ABA-approved law schools, provisionally approved law schools, and law schools on probation, visit the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar’s website. Especially if you are considering attending a for-profit law school, research their status with the ABA, the U.S. Department of Education, and state authorities. Even a hint of scandal can be enough to start a law school down a bad road from which it cannot recover.
For the foreseeable future, law schools will be adjusting to new financial realities. Even the most stable of law schools will likely engage in some belt tightening. If you are planning to apply to law school, don’t let some negative news make you overly skittish, but be a savvy applicant. Keep a keen eye on the factors above and don’t be afraid to ask your potential school plenty of questions!
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