While the federal courts and agencies struggle with the federal government shutdown and impending debt ceiling deadline, the nation’s law schools mostly remain relative oases of calm, administrators said.
One notable exception operates in the nation’s capital.
The District of Columbia David A. Clarke School is the only public law school in Washington, where the federal government controls local government spending. The university and the law school have remained open because Mayor Vincent Gray tapped the city’s reserve fund. But Clarke has been unable to procure goods or services since the shutdown began on October 1 and faculty travel has been cancelled, according to dean Shelley Broderick.
In fact, Broderick herself had to cancel plans to attend a conference on deanship diversity at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she was to participate in a panel discussion about accessing public funds. The school very nearly had to cancel its signature Joseph L. Rauh Lecture on October 2, which featured U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.
The shutdown has been a major distraction for students and faculty, who last week began discussing what to do should Washington’s emergency funding dry up as expected.
“It’s very stressful, thinking about the mechanisms we would have to employ to make sure the students get the education they’ve paid for,” Broderick said.
“We don’t anticipate the shutdown going on much longer. If we have to shut down, we’ll have to do something like we did with the ‘Snowmageddon’ [the blizzard that hit Washington in 2010], where we added 10 minutes onto each class until the end of the semester. If it goes longer, our faculty is prepared to engage in civil disobedience to keep teaching. We haven’t taken a vote on that yet, but we’ve discussed it.”
One area that won’t shut down in any case is the law school’s clinics. Clarke obtained an order from Washington Attorney General Irvin Nathan establishing that the clinic staff is essential and cannot be furloughed.
“We have lawyers and clients. We have court cases and due dates,” Broderick said. “These are people in poverty, and we have to keep the clinics open.”
Elsewhere, the most obvious damage from the shutdown has been to students in externships at federal agencies, many of whom have been sent packing along with their supervisors. Not yet clear is any effect on graduate hiring at federal agencies, according Cynthia Fountaine, dean of the Southern Illinois University School of Law.
Law schools otherwise have been largely insulated from the shutdown, in part because they don’t rely on direct federal support, apart from occasional grants for special projects, said Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education at the American Bar Association.
“We haven’t received any formal calls from law deans about this,” Currier said. “I can’t think of any other ways [beside externships] that the shutdown would affect legal education.”
The occasional grants that law schools receive from the federal government generally are for long-term projects; the money is not disbursed on a daily basis and thus these projects are not likely to be disrupted, Currier said. Additionally, federal grants for special projects typically are not central to a law school’s operational budget, he added.
Outside Washington, the shutdown and looming debt crisis have generated little of any chatter on law school administration listservs, according Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admission, financial aid and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School.
Importantly, the federal loan system has not seen any disruptions, she said. While the U.S. Department of Education oversees federal education borrowing, loan servicing is contracted out to private companies such as Sallie Mae, whose employees remain on the job.
“The shutdown is not affecting student loan borrowers directly, mostly because student loans are a money-making venture for the government,” said Heather Jarvis, a consultant with expertise in student borrowing.
Moreover, federal student loan rates are established every July 1 and locked in for 12 months; any market fluctuations caused by the shutdown or debt ceiling jitters would have no immediate effect.
It’s less clear what, if anything, would happen to the federal loan system should the government fail to extend the debt ceiling by the projected Thursday deadline, Jarvis said. Congress this year tied the federal student loan rates to the 10-year Treasury note.
Still, student loan rates won’t be calculated again until July 1, 2014, giving lawmakers and the markets plenty of time to settle down, Jarvis said.
“I’m not even sure the [debt ceiling] will make rates go up, rather that down,” she said. “I really don’t know if there will be any direct consequences.”
Law school administrators are equally confused.
“The debt ceiling stuff, though, is so unprecedented that honestly, I just don’t think there’s anyone in higher education speculating about it, at least at my level,” Zearfoss said.
Of course, law school endowments could suffer if the debt ceiling wrecks havoc on the financial markets, Zearfoss noted. But the same dynamic is at play every time the market is thrown into flux, she said.