The Ann Arbor campus of Cooley Law School, strapped for cash due to falling enrollments, is making layoffs and cancelling the entire incoming freshman class, the school announced Wednesday.
It’s the first of what could be further major contractions in legal education.
“Despite our ongoing cost control efforts, it has become apparent that we must now reassess our costs, including our faculty and staff levels, in light of current enrollment. Thus, Cooley’s board of directors and administration are instituting a financial management plan designed to right size and reinvent the school,” the school said in an announcement. “As part of the plan, Cooley will also hold off enrolling incoming first-term students at the Ann Arbor campus for fall 2014.”
The Ann Arbor campus is just one of five currently operated by Cooley, and the campus’s prospective first years will be offered the chance to matriculate at a different campus. Nevertheless, the class cancellation could prove to be the Patient Zero of a wider epidemic for law schools.
Law school matriculation numbers have declined precipitously in recent years, driven downwards by high tuition and poor job prospects for graduates. Only 39,765 first year law students matriculated in 2013, a drop from a peak of over 50,000 and down to levels not seen since the 1970s, when there were significantly fewer law schools.
Cooley, the largest private law school in the country, has been hit hard by the ongoing crisis, with enrollment dropping by over 40 percent. Cooley has some of the most permissive admissions criteria in the country, and according to the website LawSchoolTransparency only 23 percent of its graduates find full-time work as attorneys after graduation.
In 2012, Cooley fended off a lawsuit from disgruntled alumni who accused the school of luring in students with misleading employment data.
Professor Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado who has written extensively on the crisis in legal education, predicted that the announcement would be the first of a larger adjustment that he says is badly needed in legal academia.
“I see this as a good thing, for sure,” Campos told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “In terms of radical steps that involve really serious downsizing, we’re going to see more of this in coming years.”
Campos said that two types of schools are most likely to follow in Cooley’s footsteps by either dramatically downsizing or closing entirely. The first, he said, are independent, lowly-ranked law schools that aren’t supported by a broader university, such as Florida Coastal Law School and the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. Such schools are highly dependent on tuition and can’t survive lean times without obtaining credit, which is becoming harder and harder to get for such schools.
The other class of law schools Campos described as vulnerable are those attached to larger universities, but which are lowly-ranked and currently losing money.
“Those schools are doing two forms of damage. One, it costs them money, and they’re not doing much in any way of enhancing the reputation of the institution,” Campos said. He cited Whittier College in California as a college being dragged down by a lowly-ranked law school that may consider closing it down entirely.
The only way for schools to avoid a major crunch, Campos said, is to take preemptive action to roll back expenses.
“There are plenty of law schools spending double the money they were 15 years ago for no sound pedagogical reason,” Campos said, attributing partial blame to a constant positional battle within the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. “The lesson for non-elite schools is, you’ve got to downsize.”
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