It’s hard out there for an independent law school.
The number of law campuses that aren’t attached to larger universities is slowly dwindling amid closures and mergers, and several stand-alone campuses are fighting for survival. The seven-year downturn in legal education, which appears to be coming to an end, hit independent law schools especially hard because they can’t tap into university funds to tide them over in lean times. Many independent law schools also experienced sharper enrollment declines than their university-affiliated counterparts.
“Fortunately we’re not in this position, but if we were out of money, we can’t ask a university for money,” said Alicia Ouellette, dean of Albany Law School, which was founded in 1851 and is the nation’s oldest independent law school. “That is the principal challenge, I think.”
Eighteen independent law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association, though that number is expected to fall to 17 in 2019, when the John Marshall Law School becomes part of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The school has operated independently since its founding in 1899, but officials said last week that the move will ensure John Marshall’s long-term future, lower tuition, and create opportunities for more interdisciplinary programming and dual degrees.
“I really hope there is a place for stand-alone, independent law schools,” said John Marshall Dean Darby Dickerson, who will continue to lead the law school once it becomes part of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “With market fluctuations and all the compliance requirements that any institution of higher education has, it has become increasingly difficult to do everything you need to do and do it well.”
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The plight of the stand-alone law school illustrates the widespread problems buffeting legal education in the United States—lower enrollments, budget shortfalls, high student costs—albeit to an extreme degree. And the closures of those schools would likely have a significant impact on diversity within the legal profession, as many have relatively high minority enrollment.
The John Marshall move is the latest change to rock the small cohort of stand-alone law schools. Four independent law campuses were acquired by public universities between 1995 and 2010. Just last year, the for-profit Charlotte School of Law shuttered after it was booted from the federal student loan program due to problems with its ABA accreditation.
The independent William Mitchell College of Law, founded in 1956, merged with Hamline University School of Law in 2015. The combined Mitchell Hamline School of Law is technically independent from Hamline University, but the merge was necessary to bolster the two St. Paul law schools, which had suffered steep enrollment declines.
A host of independent law schools also has faced accreditation shortcomings in recent years, including the Appalachian School of Law; Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School; Ave Maria School of Law; Florida Coastal School of Law; Thomas Jefferson School of Law; and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. (Cooley affiliated with Western Michigan in 2014 but retains control over the law school. The school has since been found in compliance with the ABA standards, as has Ave Maria.)
The independent Arizona Summit Law School may be the next to close. Citing ongoing problems with the school’s admissions tactics, the ABA in June revoked Arizona Summit’s accreditation—an apparent first. The Phoenix school remains open while the ABA considers its appeal.
Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School this spring announced it will close its Savannah Law School offshoot, saying the 6-year-old branch campus never attracted enough students to be financially viable.
And Vermont Law School, a 45-year-old independent law school known nationally for its environmental law program, recently stripped tenure from more than half its faculty in an effort to address an ongoing budget shortfall. (Vermont Dean Thomas McHenry did not respond to requests for comment, but told the Vermont Digger last week that the school is under “tremendous” financial pressure and that the recent changes will save $1 million annually.)
Independent law schools aren’t the only campuses facing challenges. Whittier University in the spring of 2017 decided to wind down its law school; Indiana Tech closed its fledging school in 2016 after just four years; and Valparaiso University School of Law has stopped accepting new students and officials are hoping to relocate the school to a public university in Tennessee.
But stand-alone law schools have less financial security when a law degree falls out of favor, according to deans at those institutions.
“It’s a difficult road for independent law schools because you don’t have that safety net when you get into a long cycle when legal education is not as popular,” Dickerson said.
For example, the University of Minnesota has funneled an estimated $16 million to its law school since 2012 to cover operating losses. That type of bailout isn’t an option for stand-alone schools. Hence, they have to plan carefully for future downturns in the legal education market, Ouellette said. A 2014 report by Moody’s Investor Service warned that stand-alone law schools were at particular risk because they are “highly tuition dependent.”
Operating costs are also higher for independent law schools because they can’t take advantage of shared universitywide resources, according to deans.
“When you’re an independent law school, you have to replicate everything a regular university would have,” said Kevin Cieply, dean of the 19-year-old Ave Maria School of Law. “We have to do our own Title IV [compliance], our own human resources, our own counseling for students. “There are no economies of scale. You’re doing everything yourself, so costs are higher.”
Student recruitment can also be tougher because independent law schools don’t have a homegrown pool of undergraduate students to draw from, though some, such as Albany and Cooley, have established affiliations with public universities to develop recruiting pipelines. They may also suffer from certain biases, said Mitchell Hamline professor Eric Janus, who was dean at William Mitchell before it merged with Hamline. “At some level, stand-alone law schools have a reputational disadvantage,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s not deserved. But I think in some people’s minds, independent law schools represent nonelite legal education, and that can be a barrier to overcome.”
Albany; Vermont; Brooklyn Law School; and New York Law School are the only independent law schools numerically ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The remaining stand-alone schools land in U.S. News’ unranked second tier. (This does not include the University of California Hastings College of the Law, which is not attached to a university but is part of the larger University of California System.)
But deans at stand-alone law schools say their model also comes with distinct advantages. The flip side of not receiving university funds in tight times is that they never have to turn over a percentage of their revenue in flush times, as do many university-based law schools, a practice often referred to as “paying the university tax.”
The singular focus on educating lawyers is another benefit to the independent model, in that everything is designed solely to deliver legal education.
“You have governance over the entire enterprise in a way that’s dedicated to this one mission,” Janus said. “I think that is, in my mind, a fundamental advantage of a stand-alone law school—there’s clarity and unanimity with respect to the mission of the place.”
But the main advantage cited by every law dean contacted for this report is the nimbleness that comes with independence and the ability to make decisions without dealing with university bureaucracy. Independent law schools control their own budgets and every aspect of their programs.
Thomas Jefferson dean Joan Bullock likened stand-alone law schools to maneuverable row boats, with university-housed law schools being large and steady ocean liners.
“I don’t have to go through the provost, the president and whoever else, and I don’t have to beg for resources and compete with other departments,” she said. “If this is a priority for our school and our faculty, we can go for it.”
That agility is the reason Thomas Jefferson was able to launch one of the first online LL.M. programs in 2007, at a time when legal education was deeply skeptical about distance education, Bullock said. A decade later, online master’s programs are common.
“I love the fact that I don’t answer to a provost,” said Ave Maria’s Cieply. “I love the fact that I can change things today. I love the fact that everything I do is tailored for the law school. I don’t have a provost putting me on some project to work on that doesn’t have anything to do with the law school.”
And not all independent law schools are struggling. Ave Maria and Albany are both expecting a larger incoming class this fall with stronger academic credentials. Albany saw a 24 percent spike in applications this cycle, Ouellette said. Neither school is currently considering a merge, according to their deans.
But the picture is less rosy on other campuses. Thomas Jefferson is in the process of vacating the $90 million San Diego campus it built in 2011 and is relocating to a smaller space in a nearby office building. New student enrollment fell by nearly half between 2011 and 2017 and the school turned ownership of its building over to bondholders in 2014 in a bid to reduce its debt. But Thomas Jefferson still could not afford the $6 million annual rent, prompting the move. Despite those challenges, Bullock said the school aims to remain independent.
“I don’t think this model is going the way of the dinosaur, but I do think we need to be smart about it,” she said. “My goal is not only to exist but to thrive.”