It used to happen like clockwork. Each year, Pfizer Inc. would help foot the bill to send some of the employees in its Connecticut outposts to the University of Connecticut School of Law.

The Pfizer employees were scientists and business types by day and dutiful law students by night — often landing at or near the top of the class. They also represented a reliable way for the law school to fill seats in its part-time program, along with the banks, insurance companies and governmental agencies that offered robust tuition reimbursements to their employees.

But Pfizer has been reducing its presence in Connecticut, and plenty of other companies have eliminated or cut down their tuition reimbursements, said Ellen Keane Rutt, associate dean for enrollment and strategic planning at the law school. According to a panel of legal educators who gathered during the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) annual meeting in early January, lagging employer support, workers’ fears about losing their jobs, the growing popularity of Master of Business Administration programs, rising tuition and the tough legal job market all are contributing to declining enrollment in part-time programs.

“The question has become, ‘Am I going to fill my part-time class this year?’ ” Rutt said. “In the Northeast, people have many options, and I think some part-time programs are going to go away. Frankly, I don’t think the demand is there.”

Research by the Law School Admission Council confirmed that enrollment in, and applications to, part-time programs has declined, but law schools themselves have played a role in that dropoff. Enrollment in part-time day programs fell dramatically in 2009 — the first year U.S. News & World Report began weighing the Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grade-point averages of part-time students in its rankings calculations. [See chart.] The council’s study appeared to substantiate what legal educators long suspected: that schools were funneling lower-performing students into part-time day programs to prop up their rankings, but curtailed the practice when it no longer offered any advantage. And then there’s the rough economy.

“Part-time programs are very closely tied to the economy,” said Jon Garon, a professor at Northern Kentucky Uni­ver­sity Salmon P. Chase College of Law. “In a good economy, people are willing to try something new. But unless we see a robust economy in the next five years, I think a number of schools will look at the cost of their part-time programs and choose to deploy those resources elsewhere.”

Of course, part-time law programs are not alone in experiencing waning demand. Nationwide in the 2010-11 academic year, the number of applicants to American Bar Association-accredited law schools fell by 10 percent from the previous year, according to the admission council. Early indications from the current admission cycle point to an even larger dropoff this year — nearly 17 percent.

The admission council analysis indicated that applications to part-time programs began to stagnate much earlier than 2010, when the overall number of law school applications was still on the rise. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of matriculants in part-time day programs decreased by 57 percent. Part-time evening programs saw a more modest decline — 17 percent.

‘U.S. NEWS’ LOOPHOLE

Meanwhile, law schools continued to create part-time programs. There were 40 part-time day programs at ABA-accredited schools in 2006 and 53 by 2010. Similarly, there were 55 evening part-time programs in 2006 and 65 by 2010. Garon and others have speculated that the U.S. News loophole prompted some of this growth — law schools could admit weaker students without compromising their rankings.

The council data showed that, on average, students in part-time programs had lower LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages than all new law students combined. U.S. News explained its decision to close the loophole by saying that the new methodology “produces the most complete comparisons.”

“One reason we might see some part-time programs close is because of the U.S. News rule change,” said Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law. “A number of law schools founded or expanded their part-time programs as a way to hide their students with lower credentials. Now, every student counts.”

Speculation that some law schools would shut down part-time programs doesn’t seem far-fetched, given that several have already closed since the financial crisis in 2008. Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law shuttered its evening part-time program in 2009, citing the declining enrollment. Pace Law School closed its part-time evening program the following year. Admin­istrators said the program, which started in 1976, had become too expensive, given that fewer students were enrolling. Part-time programs carry added costs for law schools, such as keeping buildings open during evening hours.

The profile of the average part-time student differs from full-time students’, according to administrators from a number of schools with large classes of part-timers. They are more likely to be employed or have family responsibilities, and they tend to be older. Those characteristics generally make them more cautious about pursuing a high-cost law degree, Garon said­ — especially because older students and career-switchers have less time to pay off law school debt.

Not only that, but many people who have jobs are eager to hold on to them in this dismal hiring market, Rutt said during the AALS panel discussion. “Some people are afraid to let employers know they are considering going to law school part time,” she said. “In many places, it’s seen by employers as disinterest in their current position, or an indication that they have plans to do something else.”

Janus said interest in the school’s part-time program began to fall off long before the recession. Between 25 and 30 percent of the school’s 950 students now attend part-time.

“Over the last 10, 15 years, there has been a steady decline in applicants and matriculants into our part-time program,” Janus said. “It’s been gradual, and may be a combination of factors. More and more people are making a judgment about the quickest, most efficient way to get a law degree. They may be looking at the money value of their time.” Most part-time students complete their law degree in four years instead of the standard three. And employer support has been declining, Janus said.

One part-time program that won’t be going anywhere is the one at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, according to Don LeDuc, its president and dean. Cooley is the largest law school in the country and about 75 percent of its students enroll part-time, making that program the school’s bread and butter. Cooley offers classes during the day, evenings and on weekends to give students as much flexibility as possible. The school has developed weekend clinics because hands-on training traditionally has been difficult to incorporate into part-time and evening class schedules.

But even those efforts have not kept interest levels steady; applications were down by 15 percent during the 2010-11 admissions cycle, LeDuc said. The school responded by trimming the size of its incoming class by one-third. “I think the biggest factor is the belief that there is no employment for law graduates,” he said.

AT THE YMCA

Part-time law programs have a long history in the United States, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Legal Education by Dorothy Finnegan, associate professor of higher education at College of William and Mary. They appeared around 1866 and, by 1930, 65 percent of law students attended part-time, she wrote. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) established or housed at least 19 part-time law programs during the first three decades of the last century, to give working-class people access to a legal education. Those YMCA programs provided the foundations for numerous schools still in existence, including Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco; Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio; and South Texas College of Law in Houston.

Not everyone is convinced that part-time law programs are in peril. Camille Spinello Andrews, associate dean for enrollment and projects at Rutgers School of Law – Camden, said during the AALS meeting that her school’s part-time program has remained popular with students.

“I do think that we’re being too pessimistic about part-time programs,” she said after hearing other administrators voice their concerns for more than an hour. “I do think we have to be more creative about them and about how they add value.”

Law schools will react to waning demand in different ways, Garon said. Some will hold endless meetings to discuss the problem but ultimately change nothing, he said. A relatively small number will get out of the business altogether. That won’t matter much in places with more than one program, but could hurt where there are no other options, he said. Newer part-time programs are likely the most at risk, since they lack deep networks of alumni to support them.

A larger number of schools will “tinker” with their part-time model, Garon continued, perhaps offering more online courses or adding low-residency programs allowing out-of-town students to convene on campus for three-day stretches.

Another option is to offer a “vanilla” J.D. degree — centered on basic law courses such as torts and civil procedure — at a lower price, then charge extra for clinics and other resource-intensive classes, Garon said. Schools also could do a better job of integrating specialties such as entertainment law, health law and intellectual property into their part-time programs, to open up new streams of potential students.

“There’s a lot of factors that have combined to put pressure on law schools, and the part-time programs are most vulnerable,” Garon said. “I think we’ll start to see schools doing some innovative things in the next two to three years.”

Chart: Part-time students at ABA-accredited law schools

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.