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Whittier Law School Closing: The First of Many?

April 21, 2017, 3:15 PM

The Whittier College Board of Trustees announced Wednesday that it is closing its law school, making it one of, if not the first ABA accredited law school to shut its doors. But it likely won’t be the last, legal experts predict.

“Once somebody does it, it becomes much more acceptable, psychologically and politically,” said Paul Campos, a professor at Colorado Law School who studies the economics of higher education. “There are a number of other schools that are struggling at least as much, if not more, than Whittier.”

He said that university administrators tend to be reactive.

Founded in 1966 and acquired by Whittier college in 1974, Whittier has struggled with low bar passage rates, 22 percent in 2016, and declining 1L enrollment, down 57 percent from 2010 to 2016, and the school’s board of trustees decided not to keep the school open.

“The outcomes of the students were getting bad enough that it was not very plausible to argue that there was prestige reflected on the larger institution,” said Campos.

Law schools across the country saw a steep decline in student applications following the great recession, and many have failed to recover. Enrollment in ABA-approved schools fell 18.5 percent to 119,775 in 2014, after reaching a historic high of 147,525 in 2010, according to the ABA. On top of that, the number of private practice jobs has also decreased , according to the National Association For Law Placement, making law school less of a safe bet for students than it once was.

Whittier is not the law first school to fall victim to this post-recession trend, but it is the first fully accredited law school to close entirely, Campos said. Indiana Tech Law School, which opened in 2013, closed last November while still partially accredited, and Hamline School of Law merged with William Mitchell College of Law in 2015.

Campos said the news that an ABA-accredited law school is closing doesn’t come as a surprise.

“This has been building for a long time, for at least five years,” he said.

Other Law Schools at Risk

Many other schools are grappling with similar issues to Whittier, Campos said.

Law schools at risk of closing, he said, include Valparaiso University (63.3 percent bar pass rate in 2015), Thomas M. Cooley School of Law (51.9 percent), Thomas Jefferson School of Law (48.2 percent), University of La Verne (53.7 percent), and Appalachian School of Law (58.1 percent).

Campos also named named Florida Coastal School of Law (61.1 percent), Charlotte School of Law (46.3 percent), and Arizona Summit Law School (41.6 percent), all of which are operated by InfiLaw System, a for-profit entity owned by Sterling Partners.

“I would put the number of schools likely to close over next five years as five to ten,” Campos said. “We’re still just at the beginning of what’s going to be a significant shakeout.”

Whittier’s Problems

In Whittier’s case, it faced a combination of low performance and low admissions.

“It’s really tough to unravel the cause and the effect here,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency (LST), a non-profit that tracks law school data. “The reason Whittier is struggling financially is because their performance was so poor in the first place.”

Whittier’s 1L enrollment numbers have been steadily dropping, as have its job placement numbers: In 2015, only 36 of its 141 graduates found jobs that required passing the bar, and in 2016, only 45 out of 128 did, according to data provided by Whittier to the American Bar Association.

Whittier reported a 38.1 percent bar passage rate to the ABA in 2015, and in July 2016, the rate dropped to 22 percent, according to records obtained The Recorder .

“That number is so shockingly bad, I suspect it was a final straw for the university’s leadership,” said Campos.

In a statement to the law school community, the board of trustees said it looked into “every realistic option” to keep the law school open, including “working with the administration and faculty to redirect resources and efforts to improve student outcomes and right-size the operation in a manner to achieve enhanced academic viability.”

A request for comment sent to Whittier Law School dean Judith Daar was not returned.

Last Minute Faculty Efforts

Faculty at the law school tried to block the trustees’ announcement of the school’s closing, unsuccessfully petitioning a California state court for a temporary restraining order this week to delay the news.

According to faculty, the law school was a profitable part of the college for decades. Though it experienced a brief stint on ABA probation in the mid-aughts due to low bar passage rates, the law school “rebounded” by the end of the decade, their petition says. However, the law school became “less of a profit center” in 2015, due in large part to contractions across the legal education market, according to the petition.

At the beginning of 2017, the board sold the land the law school sits on for a profit of $13 million, allegedly promising faculty that some of the proceeds would be funneled back into the law school, according to the TRO petition. Faculty members now argue the sudden decision to close the school violates their employment contracts, and that the college effectively looted the law school, which paid the mortgage on the land.

Internal politics at a college or university can play a big role in determining a law school’s fate, according to McEntee. Law professors are often paid more than other faculty, and so “when the going is good, it’s easier to justify paying them more.” But if the law department starts losing money and other faculty members see law professors still getting paid more, “that’s a recipe for disaster.”