On April 19, 2017, the Whitter College Board of Trustees announced that my alma mater Whittier Law School would stop accepting new students and close permanently at the appropriate time. This not only made headlines in many legal publications, but it also made national news including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg.
The announcement reignited the debate as to whether there are too many lawyers and law schools. It also had people guessing as which law school will be the next to close.
The Whittier College Board of Trustees voted to close Whittier Law School because they claimed they could not find a realistic option to continue a successful law program.
Whittier’s first-time bar passage rates have been lower than the California state average in the last few years. This puts the school in danger of being placed on probation by the American Bar Association or even losing accreditation altogether. The ABA has recently become more aggressive about disciplining its member schools that don’t meet bar passage standards.
While Whittier Law School graduates eventually find jobs, many struggle to do so. Many are unable to find a job within one year after graduation. According to the NALP, of the Whittier Class of 2015’s 141 graduates, only 38 were able to find jobs as lawyers.
According to the NALP, the majority of Whittier graduates’ starting salaries were between $40,000 and $65,000. Many graduates of Whittier Law have nearly $180,000 in pre-interest student loan debt. But if undergraduate debt and compounded interest are factored in, that total can increase to $250,000 and possibly even $300,000.
This toxic combination of low salaries and high student loan debt had led many potential students to matriculate elsewhere or to not go to law school at all. Enrollment has decreased by over 50% since 2010. As of April 2017, only 40 students were expected to matriculate in 2017. While this number seems small, it is too early to tell what the final number would have been, as most decide to enroll between June and July.
The decrease in enrollment has hurt the school’s bottom line. According to Whittier College’s most recent audited financial statements, net tuition revenue from the law school has declined since 2014. While tuition at Whittier Law School is $45,350 per year, some students receive scholarships to attend.
The Board claims that it has considered a number of options to make the law school sustainable. The law school attempted to merge with another institution, but that effort recently failed.
Past Law School Closures
In the past few years, other law schools have closed for the similar reasons: declining enrollment and profit, the risk of losing ABA accreditation, and poor employment outcomes.
In 2014, Thomas Cooley Law School decided to close its Ann Arbor campus at the end of the year citing declining enrollment and decreasing tuition revenue. Today, Cooley Law has affiliated itself with Western Michigan University and has five campuses in Michigan and Florida.
In 2015, Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota merged with its cross-town rival William Mitchell College of Law to form Mitchell Hamline School of Law operating at the William Mitchell campus. Some have interpreted this merger as a disguised closure of Hamline.
In 2016, Indiana Tech Law School closed its campus after operating for only four years. As a newly opened school, it only had provisional accreditation by the ABA. Twenty students graduated, only three of whom passed the state bar examination. The school incurred $20 million in losses and had the worst bar passage rate in Indiana.
Which Law School Is the Next to Close?
Since Whittier’s announcement, some believe that others law schools with similar financial and enrollment problems will follow suit. Professor Paul Campos tells Bloomberg that these schools are the most likely to close:
- Valparaiso University (63.3% bar pass rate in 2015)
- Thomas M. Cooley School of Law (51.9%)
- Thomas Jefferson School of Law (48.2%)
- University of La Verne (53.7%)
- Appalachian School of Law (58.1%)
- Florida Coastal School of Law (61.1%)
- Charlotte School of Law (46.3%)
- Arizona Summit Law School (41.6%)
Of the schools listed above, Charlotte’s situation is the most dire. It has been placed on probation by the ABA. It has lost eligibility for federal student loans. Its interim dean resigned after less than one month. Its February 2017 bar passage rate was its worst ever. It has submitted a teach-out plan which is a strong indicator that the school is planning to close. And North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is investigating whether the school is violating the state’s consumer protection laws.
But closing a law school is a challenging decision. Students, faculty, and alumni will be distraught, embarrassed, and angry over the decision. They may even take legal action to stop the closure. In Whittier’s case, the day before the announcement, the faculty filed an emergency temporary restraining order to stop the closure which was denied on First Amendment grounds. A few days later, 100 students traveled to the main campus to protest the closure. All parties are now reviewing their legal options.
Also, similarly ranked law schools are likely to be playing the waiting game. They are betting that if its competitors close first, they will be in a position to be more selective with their admissions and charge higher tuition.
The Effect on Diversity and Access to Justice
Critics are concerned that a trend of law school closures will decrease the number of lawyers who can serve the working class. This concern is speculative and depends on the location that each law school serves.
Whittier is located in Southern California, which has eight ABA-accredited law schools and some unaccredited ones. Its favorable climate, trendy culture, ethnic diversity and large presence of high net worth businesses and individuals are likely to attract out-of-state lawyers despite the location’s high cost of living. This suggests that at least in the short run, there will be no shortage of lawyers in the area.
Another concern is that closures will make it more difficult for people of color to enter the profession. Whittier Law has been known for consistently having one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. But due to its low bar passage rates, the high cost of attendance and low employment prospects, some wonder whether they are actually helping minority students or making their situation worse.
The End of an Era
I am sad to hear that my alma mater is closing and I write this with great consternation. While attending Whittier Law School, I was a member of moot court, the mock trial team, and was the student body treasurer. During that time, I met many ambitious, intelligent and down-to-earth people. Since graduating, I have met Whittier alumni who work for reputable boutique firms and work as in-house attorneys for brand-name companies. Many run their own lucrative practices. A few alumni write for nationally respected legal publications—like Above The Law‘s Jill Switzer, and me.
Also, the students—particularly in recent years—are fully aware that they will not earn high salaries immediately after graduation and possibly for the rest of their careers. But they enroll anyway hoping to find a different path to success or to pursue a higher calling by helping those who cannot help themselves.
On the other hand, I am sure many alumni are silently struggling and wondering whether they made the right decision. Some will never get a chance to practice law, either because they cannot pass the bar or they cannot get a job. Others will never repay their student loans. All of this will affect their ability to become homeowners, save for retirement, and have families. I can only imagine how depressing this can be.
Whittier Law School’s closure will negatively affect the students, everyone employed at the law school and the local economy. It may also encourage other schools to do the same or take drastic steps to reduce enrollment and costs or risk becoming unprofitable and losing ABA accreditation. In a few years, we’ll see how this will affect the small-firm community, access to justice and diversity to the profession.