Have you heard of Charlotte School of Law, or of Whittier Law School? Well, you may not hear of them for much longer. Both were scheduled to close this year, though in both cases there were campaigns by faculty and alumni to keep them open.
Charlotte has been faltering in recent years, with bad news that has included being placed on probation by the American Bar Association due to the dismal record of its graduates in passing the bar exam and being kicked out of the federal student loan program by the Department of Education.
Two deans then quit in rapid succession, and the North Carolina attorney general began an investigation of the school’s state operating license. Though the school has applied to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to be allowed back into the federal student loan program, it is likely that too many current Charlotte Law students have moved to other schools to allow Charlotte to qualify for reinstatement. Whether students would be able to get their student loans discharged due to the school’s closing was expected to remain a complicated and frustrating experience for students at the for-profit school.
Schools like Charlotte, Whittier, and Arizona Summit Law School, another faltering school, illuminate a larger problem, or set of problems. Law schools still struggle to some extent with a diminishing number of applicants, though some suggest that the news reports of all those attorneys working on their computers on the floor in airports when the travel ban hit may inspire a number of people to consider law school after all. But the last few years have seen a steep decline in the number of applicants to law schools, estimated by some as at least 30 percent. In an effort to fill classes, some schools accepted students whose college records would never have supported admission in the past. Then, to no one’s surprise, those students failed to pass the bar exam after graduation. The result is a population of young people not able to find employment, yet saddled with significant loans to pay off.
It is easy to say that the schools should not have accepted students who failed to meet standard expectations for admission. Easy, but true. Luring students in with hopes of a career for which they are not qualified is cruel and serves no one’s purpose, other than a school that just wants that tuition payment. But it now appears that the past few years are catching up with the schools, and if they fail, it is because they deserve to. Though there are many statistics about law schools that should be taken with many grains of salt, the percentage of graduates who pass the bar is one statistic that is real and reliable and should be a real red flag when the percentage is low.
That translates, in student terms, to the fact that students with poor academic records should not plan on a career in law, and undergraduate advisers should tell them that. Certainly there will be exceptions to this generality, such as the student who meandered through college with no serious purpose, but in the years after graduation found that purpose and proved himself or herself in meaningful employment. That person may now be ready for law school, and may now have the determination and intelligence to handle it. But for the student graduating now, whose GPA and LSAT score are low, they are probably best advised to look for another career choice. Accepting them into a law school that is ill-prepared to help them pass the bar is doing them a serious disservice and certainly doing nothing for the practice of law.
That raises another issue, though, and that is whether the law schools are really prepared to teach their students. Is this entirely a question of students who are not good candidates for the practice, or could it be, at least in part, to law schools doing a poor job? Schools may balk at being judged on bar passage rates, but the reality is that they are. Law schools should be more than “teaching to the test,” but on an important level, passing that test is a measure of the school’s success.
The current problem means that some law schools will—and should—fail. And while that will cause injury to some students and faculty right now, this should happen sooner rather than later to minimize the overall damage. It is already true that American law schools produce more graduates than the profession appears ready to absorb. A reduction in the number of law school graduates and an increase in the number who can pass the bar would be, overall, a good thing.