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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Now that some law schools are really closing, what will make other universities pull the trigger?

After years of speculation, law schools are actually closing and that is big news. Most saliently, Indiana Tech announced that its law school will close at the end of this academic year at a loss of $20 million (here), a story the National Law Journal named as one of its top five stories of the year on legal education (here). Charlotte School of Law's continued existence is in significant doubt because it can no longer participate in federal student aid programs. (here and here). Hamline University closed its law school with more stealth, but no less certainty, by giving or selling it to William Mitchell College of Law, a cross-town competitor (here and here).

It is tempting to extrapolate from these schools and predict that universities will be most likely to close law schools that (a) are start-ups, (b) have low admissions criteria coupled with poor bar passage, (c) are not the most prestigious school in a crowded regional market, or (d) are losing considerable amounts of money. But the experience of dentistry, where 12% of schools closed -- equivalent to 24 law schools -- suggests that these factors will not be the crucial ones in predicting which law schools are at risk of closing.

In both dentistry and law, a tectonic shift and contraction in the profession led to a collapse in the admissions market and a crisis in the professional schools. That crisis caused several universities to close their dental schools.

But only one of the seven dental schools to close was a start-up. Oral Roberts University's dental school had been in operation for only five years when the board made the decision to close the school. None of the schools had admissions policies that were significantly more lax than schools that remained in operation. None of the schools had a significantly worse track record in regard to students' performance on the national dental licensing exams than other schools, although the performance of dental graduates overall fell considerably during the crisis in dental education.

Rather than being at generic institutions, most of the closed dental schools were located within prestigious universities. Northwestern, Georgetown, Emory, and Washington University all closed their dental schools, as did Fairleigh Dickinson and Loyola University in Chicago. Perhaps paradoxically, one of the reasons cited for closing Washington University's dental school was that it was the high-end dental school in its region.

Most of the seven shuttered schools were losing money, but not all of them. More critically in terms of predicting closure, the great majority of dental schools nationally lost money, yet only seven were closed. In fact, two of those, Oral Roberts and Fairleigh Dickinson, were closed in large part because of financial trouble within the university, not the dental school.

I discuss the crisis in dental education and the closing of dental schools in more detail on pages 21-40 here.

Posted by Eric Chiappinelli on January 18, 2017 at 04:49 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


Thanks, Eric. That was my thinking, too. If (hypothetically) graduates from every dental school face the same job prospects, then a dental school at a "top" university is on the same ground as one from a "non-elite" university. I can see why a "top" university might see that as a reason to close a dental school sooner, as the program is not necessarily contributing to the academic prestige or financial bottom line of the university. I look forward to your future post.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 20, 2017 3:40:43 PM

Orin, in outline, I think the dental school crisis helps us understand the law school crisis because the causes were similar (radical change in the profession) and both schools are traditionally relatively autonomous professional schools located within universities. Thus I think the reaction of university administrators and boards to the legal education situation is likely to be analogous to their reaction to the dental education crisis. You’re exactly right that one factor that will distinguish legal education from dental education is the existence of a legal education hierarchy, which I discuss near the end of my article. As much as people in legal education complain about US News (and many complaints have merit), I think the dental schools were at greater risk of closing because dentistry did not have a hierarchy, which would have protected some of them. I’m planning a post on this aspect later in the month.

Posted by: Eric Chiappinelli | Jan 19, 2017 5:34:52 PM

not conducive to adequate enrollment.

You hand out 49,000 law degrees each year in a market for legal services which might absorb 26,000 new entrants and, yeah, not conducive.

Posted by: Art Deco | Jan 19, 2017 1:00:33 PM

As long as the constitution is a function of what's abroad in Mr. Injustice Kennedy's social circle, how 'bout a federal law which runs thus:

1. Sort law schools into two piles. Pile A are schools founded prior to 1914. Pile B are the remainder.

2. Among pile A, close the schools which are unaccredited or (4 years out of 5 over the last 30-odd) enroll fewer than 140 students.

3. Among pile B, retain the schools which (4 years out of 5) have scored in the top 60 on the U.S. News league table). Close the rest.

4. Eliminate subsidies to law schools and subsidized credit to attend law school.

5. Replace the JD and LLB with a new 48-credit calendar year law degree for which the preparation is a pair of certificate programs in the arts-and-sciences and business. Append to that workshops and certificate programs in specialized areas of law for law firm employees.

Posted by: Art Deco | Jan 19, 2017 12:57:33 PM

Does this mean we'll get to see a Thunderdome-esque grudge match between Northwestern and U. Chicago?

Two law schools enter. Only one leaves.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Jan 19, 2017 5:39:12 AM

Eric, can you say a bit more about why the experience with dental schools gives us useful insights in terms of which law schools might close? Law schools traditionally have been both academically prestigious and fairly hierarchical, which means that (1) universities will generally want to keep their law schools and (2) a higher-ranked school can always find students to enroll who want the opportunities that the higher-ranked school can offer. This is what leads to beliefs that there is a a higher risk of closing at certain schools, I think. Skimming over your article, it's not clear to me that this same dynamic is true with dental schools. For example, you suggest on page 35 that Emory's dental school closed because they simply couldn't find enough students to enroll, at any quality. I know very little about dental schools and the dental school market, but I wonder if the relative lack of academic prestige of having a dental school, and the relatively lack of hierarchy, might explain why the closings at dental schools were all over the map in terms of university prestige. Food for thought, at least.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 18, 2017 7:32:37 PM

The University of Washington, Tacoma decided last week that it would not pursue opening a School of Law. Apparently UWT concluded that current and near-term economic conditions were not conducive to adequate enrollment.

Posted by: Paul | Jan 18, 2017 6:57:24 PM

Charlotte is closing after this semester.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 18, 2017 6:07:57 PM

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