In 2003, Albany Law School suffered its lowest bar passage rate in 35 years. A year later, its newly hired dean mailed out brutally honest letters to alumni saying that the school would have to do more with less.
Much less. Since then, Albany Law School — the oldest independent law school in the country — has orchestrated a major reduction in its student population, which has been accompanied by the subsequent loss of $4 million in tuition fees. At the same time, it is committed to aggressive marketing, fundraising and faculty recruitment efforts, all with the hopes of resuscitating the 145-year-old institution. “I didn’t sugarcoat it,” Albany Law School Dean Thomas Guernsey said of his letters. “I was very direct.” The school, which is a part of a fiscally independent consortium of schools known as Union University, has made some tough choices. They include reducing its staff by 15 percent, cutting its budget across the board by 5 percent and raising tuition by as much as 12 percent. The challenges Albany faces, however, apparently are indicative of difficulties other schools of similar ranking are expected to encounter. A ‘VARIETY OF PRESSURES’ John Sebert, a consultant on legal education to the American Bar Association (ABA), points to a “whole variety of pressures” bearing down on the regional schools that fall outside the top tiers of the rankings in U.S. News & World Report. He said that the final tallies of individuals applying to all ABA-accredited law schools this year will be about 96,000, a decrease of about 4 percent, indicating a “relatively steady but not precipitous decline in applicants,” he said. Results regarding law school enrollment from the ABA are expected later this month. The drop suggests that schools will face mounting problems with student recruitment, tuition costs and bar passage rates, Sebert said. And for those positioned like Albany, they may have a harder time recruiting qualified applicants, who can keep pass rates up and bolster the school’s reputation. For Albany, its lowest point seemed to come in 2003, when just 67 percent of its students passed the bar exam, some 10 percentage points below the average pass rate among all New York state first-time test takers. The results in 2003 represented the poorest pass rate since 1968 for the school and were the furthest behind the state average in 43 years. In addition, the school continued to languish in the so-called “third tier” of law schools in the annual U.S. News ranking. Guernsey previously was dean at Southern Illinois University School of Law and replaced Thomas Sponsler, who retired in 2002. Guernsey was hired to spearhead changes at the school, which included new facilities and a new LL.M. program. In his first letter to alumni, he wrote, “No one is happy with the bar results.” He also said that he was implementing a plan void of “intuitive, gut reactions” that result in “waste[d] time and resources.” While Albany Law School still fell in the third tier in this year’s ranking, its pass rate rose to 78 percent. Guernsey said that reducing the school to 700 students next year, compared with 950 in 2003, is part of his goal to select students with higher undergraduate grades and higher scores on the Law School Admission Test. Performance in those “predictors” helps law school administrators gauge whether an applicant will pass the bar, although reliance on them has drawn criticism from those who urge greater diversity in law school enrollment. Besides reducing the number of students, Guernsey also has pushed for increased fundraising. Unrestricted giving to the law school rose by 38 percent last year, from $650,000 to $900,000, he said. In addition, giving was $133,000 higher as of Dec. 27, 2005, compared to a year ago, and money for financial aid climbed to $4.5 million, up from $3 million three years ago, he said. “We’re running a business, it just happens to be not for profit, but it’s still a business,” he said. Third-year law student Ben Gold said that he has seen a change at the school. “I wouldn’t want to blindly say it’s all because of what the dean’s done, but I think morale has improved,” he said.