We forgotten attorneys have been eagerly placing our bets on which law school will be the first to shut its doors. It’s likely that the low-ranked schools will be the first to close because decreasing enrollment and increased operating costs will eventually make the school unprofitable. But others think that more prestigious law schools will close in order to protect the reputation of its parent university.
Three lawprofs offer contrasting opinions.
Brian Leiter, the Lex Luthor Professor of Law and Philosophical Ramblings, believes that “the most vulnerable schools are free-standing ones of relatively recent vintage, and those also happen to be overwhelmingly 4th-tier–but their “4th tier” status is not the primary explanation of their vulnerability, but rather one that just exacerbates their vulnerability to enrollment (and thus revenue) declines.” In other words, the schools most likely to close are low ranked schools with no parent university who will cover its losses.
Dean Gershon (Mississippi) questions this logic, using the example of the now closed Emory and Georgetown Dental Schools (among others). G-town and Emory closed their dental schools after facing lower applicant numbers and decline in the quality of its applicants.
What is interesting is that among the universities choosing to shut down their dental programs were prestigious schools like Georgetown and Emory. My understanding is that those universities determined that their dental schools no longer attracted the types of students they wanted to have at their institutions. Like law schools, the greatest decline in dental school applications occurred at the top end of standardized scores and undergraduate GPA’s. Emory and Georgetown were concerned that the students in their dental schools would not reflect the high credentials of students in their other programs, so they decided that it was better to close the doors, than to allow the dental school to “dumb down” the university.
The assumption seems to be that it will most likely be fourth-tier schools that will close, if law schools close. Based on what happened to dental schools in an almost identical atmosphere, I am not sure that assumption is correct.
Finally, Paul Campos believes that even though most law schools are operating at a deficit, few law schools will actually close for non-financial reasons.
(a) Completely shutting down [a university’s] law school would be embarrassing to the parent university, and it will avoid doing so if there are other realistic options. [Ed. Note: Campos argues that it’s prestigious for the university to have a law school and have influential politicians as graduates.]
(b) It’s not at all difficult to operate an ABA law school that doesn’t lose money, even in a world in which half as many people, or even fewer, apply to law school as was the case in the salad days (Crucial caveat: (b) only continues to be true in a strong form as long as something like the current federal educational loan system remains in place).
So who is right?
The low ranked schools will do whatever it takes to stay open because it is still very profitable. Their strategy is to stay alive long enough by admitting anyone with a pulse – and perhaps violate an ABA regulation or two – until their competitors die off first. They know that they will never become a highly ranked or even a respectable institution. They don’t care about the future of their graduates. And of course, when they get sued, they blame their graduates.
Low ranked schools will also publicly disparage higher ranked schools. Cooley has for a very long time publicly accused other law schools of elitism in its blog post “Fourth Tier My…”.
Shit-tier schools are dramatically cutting costs. Nando’s Third Tier Reality calls out the desperate tactics of New England School of Law – including forcing faculty to accept resignations or face termination.
What about higher ranked schools? The best of the best will weather the storm. Mid ranked schools and some top-ish schools – particularly those connected to prestigious undergraduate universities are vulnerable to closure. The schools that come to my mind are Rutgers, George Washington, American, UCLA and the University of Minnesota. Their employment statistics are below par for schools of their caliber. Because of this, applicants will likely choose a slightly lower ranked school that offer a full or substantial tuition discount, which will create a costly price war and result in decreasing revenue.
These schools may also have to maintain a certain prestige in order to justify the parent university covering its losses. Like Georgetown and Emory dental schools, if the number and quality of applicants along with revenue continue to decline, the regents and provosts will seriously consider closing down the school rather than see it turn into a clown college.
I have to agree with Leiter that the low ranked schools will be the first to close as they are starting their death spiral. Their enrollments have dropped sharply and will likely continue to do so. They are purely profit motivated and will quickly fold once the money tree is chopped off. These schools will get no moral support from their higher ranked colleagues and eventually, they too will publicly call for their closure. I suspect that these schools will not really close – they will instead stop training JDs and turn into a paralegal school.
But some higher ranked schools may also close, especially if smarter people pursue other professions. Some will be casualties of the law school attrition war. Others pride themselves on admitting the intellectual elite and would rather close than admit the proletariat.
Closure of a law school will depend on the state of the economy, rising legal demand and others. But at this point, we don’t care who dies first. Once we hear about the first law school shutdown, we will take the day off and celebrate in solidarity in bars and taverns nationwide.