(Photo: Lucas Carter)
It was another tough year for law schools, but 2013’s woes prompted some legal educators to rethink their business models and experiment with new programs. Many of the innovations they embraced were born of necessity: Nationwide enrollment continued to plummet during 2013. Some law schools cut the size of their faculty to save money while others lowered tuition to appeal to more students. Still others launched masters programs for nonlaywers, and more schools announced accelerated programs allowing students to complete a bachelor’s and a law degree in six years instead of seven. Law schools continued to struggle to place their graduates in legal positions, while U.S. News & World Report adjusted its ranking methodology to give more weight to those jobs.
Here’s our Top 10 list of the biggest legal education stories of the year.
1. SMALL INCOMING CLASS
Law schools nationwide welcomed their smallest class of incoming students since 1975 — when there were only 163 American Bar Association-accredited law schools in the country, compared to 202 today. According to the ABA, 39,675 students started law school this fall, an 11 percent decline from last year and a 24 percent fall from the most recent peak of 52,488 in 2010. About two-thirds of law schools saw their incoming classes shrink this fall, with 81 schools welcoming new classes that were 10 percent or more smaller.
2. TUITION REDUCTIONS
The idea of lowering law school tuition would have been laughable just a few years ago. After all, average in-state tuition at public law schools remorselessly increased by 115 percent during the past decade and average private school tuition by 59 percent to $40,634, yet schools had more than enough applicants to fill their seats.
But increased competition for a dwindling market in students prompted a number of law schools to slash their sticker price this year. The University of Akron School of Law; the University of Arizona James E. Rogers School of Law; the University of Cincinnati College of Law; Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law; and Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law all announced some form of tuition cuts this year.
3. SO LONG, TENURE?
Few things have riled law faculty quite as much as the ABA’s discussion about removing what many people interpret as a tenure requirement from its law school accreditation standards. The dispute has simmered for years, but the council that oversees law schools now appears poised to eliminate tenure as an accreditation requirement. Pending a final decision next year, the council has asked the public to weigh in on two proposals, both of which would drop the tenure mandate in an effort to give law school more flexibility in staffing. Many of the most prominent leaders in legal education have weighed in, arguing that tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom.
4. LAW FOR LAYMEN
This was that year that masters in law degrees for nonlawyers really caught on. A number of schools launched or announced new programs giving students a foundation in the law without actually preparing them to practice. Such a degree can be useful in many contexts, including human resources and compliance, law school administrators argue. Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; the University of California Hastings College of the Law; and Emory University School of Law are just a few of the 30 schools offering such programs. The flood of masters programs is partly an attempt by schools to bring in students who otherwise wouldn’t spend the time and money to obtain a J.D.
5. SHRINKING LAW FACULTIES
With a steep decline in students over the past three years, it was perhaps inevitable that law faculties would have to slim down as well. This was the year that many law school got serious about curtailing new hiring, laying off staffers and offering early retirements and other incentives to nudge faculty members out the door. Some of these cuts were publicly acknowledged; plenty were handled quietly. Still, there’s no question that faculties are shrinking. The University of Dayton School of Law; Hamline University School of Law; University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law; Thomas Jefferson School of Law; and Vermont Law School are among the schools that have owned up to reducing staff and faculty.
6. A SHAKEUP IN THE U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT RANKING
There was an unusual amount of movement on the closely watched U.S. News & World Report rankings this year, thanks to a methodology change meant to better capture employment results. The magazine gave greater weight to graduates in permanent, full-time jobs that require bar passage, rather than treating all jobs the same. Eighteen law schools saw their rankings change by 20 spots or more, compared to four last year. Fully 39 schools moved up or down the list by 10 spots or more, but the changes primarily affected school ranked between No. 50 and No. 144 and left the top schools largely undisturbed. The University of Mississippi School of Law saw the largest gain overall, moving up 33 spots to No. 102.
7. LAW DEAN DRAMA
Each year typically brings a few shakeups at the top, and 2013 was no different. Saint Louis University School of Law Interim Dean Tom Keefe resigned in March after making comments including, “Life is a bitch. If it was easy, we would call it a slut.” A law professor sued Case Western Reserve University School of Law dean Lawrence Mitchell in October, claiming retaliation for raising concerns that Mitchell had sexually harassed staff and faculty. Mitchell has since taken a leave. University of Wyoming College of Law dean Stephen Easton resigned in October after clashing with the university’s president over the creation of a task force to advise the law school.
8. FASTER PATH TO A J.D.
Why work for seven years to earn a law degree when you could do it in six? That’s the idea between so-called 3+3 programs, which were all the rage in 2013. These programs essentially allow students to complete their undergraduate degree in three years by double-counting credits earned during the first year of law school — thus earning both a bachelor’s degree and a J.D. in six years and saving a year of undergraduate tuition. Administrators hope the accelerated programs will aid in recruiting at both the undergraduate and law school levels.
9. MORE NEW SCHOOLS
Think plummeting demand for a law degree would put the brakes on plans to open new schools? Think again. The Indiana Tech Law School in August opened the doors to its new $15 million building in Fort Wayne. The school didn’t meet its initial enrollment goal of 100 students — the inaugural class comprises 32 — but its dean has expressed optimism about the future. Meanwhile, administrators at the University of North Texas at Dallas are moving forward with plans to open the long-discussed UNT Dallas College of Law next fall; the school is now accepting applications.
10. CLERKSHIP CHAOS
The federal clerkship hiring process was a bit of a mess this year, by many accounts. The decade-old federal clerk hiring plan asked judges to wait until a predetermined date following candidates’ 2L year to interview and hire clerks. But it was dealt a fatal blow in January when the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit opted out. Additional judges followed suit and hired on their own timelines, leaving students to navigate a confusing, piecemeal system. As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts decided in November to essentially throw out the plan and allow federal judges to use its online application system to hire 2Ls as clerks as early as they want.