The University of California Hastings College of the Law will reduce enrollment by 240 students over the next three years — a 20 percent decrease. Administrators cast the move as an acknowledgement that legal academia has become bloated.

The move represents one of the most drastic attempts by any law school thus far to adjust to major shifts in the legal academia, including plummeting law school applications and reduced law firm hiring. Other law schools have reduced enrollment in recent years, but in smaller degrees.

“The critics of legal education are right,” Dean Frank Wu said in a telephone interview on April 30. “There are too many law schools and too many law students, and we’re going to fix that. We would easily be able to fill 425 seats [the size of the this year's incoming class], but to do so would be irresponsible.”

Nationwide, law school applications fell by about 15 percent this year, according to the Law School Admission Council. By contrast, Hastings saw only a 7 percent decline in applications.

Hastings has been accepting five 1L sections of about 80 students each, but next year will accept only four sections and will maintain that reduction for the following two years. Eventually, the school will enroll about 1,000 students per year, down from the existing 1,300, Wu said.

Fewer students will cost Hastings $2.1 million in tuition revenue, and so in March it eliminated the equivalent of 23 full-time positions, some through layoffs. The law school’s budget office and library staff saw the biggest employee cuts.

No faculty positions were eliminated — and the school plans to add faculty members next year, Wu said. As evidence that Hastings is in “robust financial condition right now,” he noted that the school implemented a 5 percent pay raise this year for all non-faculty employees.

Still, the school plans to boost fundraising efforts; has suspended its practice of saving money for building improvement projects; and plans to invest in distance education projects and non-J.D. programs.

Bringing in fewer students will benefit the ones who do gain admission, Wu said. “As a smaller school, we will have better metrics. Students will have a better experience, and obviously there will be better employment outcomes.”

The plan to reduce the school’s enrollment has been in the works for close to a year. Hastings formed a Strategic Plan Committee in May 2011 in light of rapidly evolving legal marketplace. In September, Wu presented the committee’s findings to the law school’s trustees.

The changes haven’t gone over well with everyone. After the staff layoffs were announced in March, a group called Students for a Better Hastings hosted a town hall meeting to air their concerns about rising tuition, student body diversity and the financial health of the law school.

Wu acknowledged that student reaction to the plan has been mixed, but said that alumni have overwhelmingly embraced it.

Hastings’ unique structure is one reason the school is able to implement a significant reduction in enrollment, Wu said. It is a public law school within the University of California system, but is not attached to a larger university and has its own governing board.

“We’re a stand-alone, independent law school. There is no central administration taxing me,” Wu said.

That doesn’t mean that Hastings is immune from the steep decline in public funding to higher education in California, however. Public money now accounts for about 10 percent of the school’s revenue, which is down from 50 percent a decade ago. Hastings, like many other public law schools, has relied in part on tuition increases to make up that deficit.

In December, the school’s trustees voted to increase in-state tuition by 15 percent next year, from $40,653 to $46,575. Non-resident tuition will increase from $49,153 to $52,575.

“I’ll say what most law deans won’t: Legal education is crisis,” Wu said. “We’re at a crossroads, and unless we collectively reboot this thing, we’re in real trouble. Every law school should be thinking about this.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.