American Bar Association offices in Washington, D.C.
American Bar Association offices in Washington, D.C. (Diego M. Radzinschi)

ACCREDITATION OVERHAUL

It took twice as long as expected, but the American Bar Association’s first overhaul of its law school accreditation standards since 2003 finally wrapped up in August when the House of Delegates signed off on the lengthy package of changes. The ABA ultimately rejected a controversial proposal that would have stripped the faculty tenure mandate, but it adopted “student learning outcomes” measures gauging what students are really learning.

Going forward, all students must complete at least six hours of clinical or other “experiential” work. They will be able to take as many as 15 credit hours online, up from 12 — a change that allows them to complete a full semester away from campus. The new standards end the 20-hour-per-week limit on work outside of law school, and they encourage schools to provide opportunities for up to 50 hours of pro bono work per student.The ABA toyed with the idea of dropping its long-standing ban on students receiving both pay and academic credit for externships, but ultimately decided to retain the rule. Similarly, it opted to keep the requirement that applicants take the Law School Admission Test and decided against raising the bar passage minimum standard.

MURDER IN TALLAHASSEE

The July murder of prominent Florida State University of College of Law professor Dan Markel sent shock waves though the legal academy and left many wondering who would want him dead.

According to Tallahassee police, Markel, 41, was shot in the head at around 11 a.m. on July 19 at his house in his quiet neighborhood; a neighbor called the police after hearing a “loud bang.” He died early the next day. No arrest has been made and police have not publicly identified any suspects.

The criminal law specialist started PrawfsBlawg when he landed his assistant professorship in 2005. The blog developed into a place where participants shared insights on the profession and trends in the legal academy. Markel was also known for his networking skills, helping other professors — especially those starting their academic careers — make connections at conferences. “Dan so enriched our academic community, welcoming me, and I expect many others, to the world of legal academia with enthusiasm and joy,” read one comment on PrawfsBlawg in the wake of his death.

Numerous memorials were held at law schools on both coasts, while friends and colleagues launched a memorial fund for Markel’s two young sons. It has raised more than $58,000 thus far.

BAR EXAM BLUES

The bar examination is never fun — ask any lawyer — but law grads sitting for the test in July had an especially rough time.

First, a technical software glitch left takers across the country scrambling to upload their completed exams in time, sending more than a few into a panic and ­forcing some jurisdictions to extend their deadlines. Within days, law grads in several states had filed class actions against ExamSoft Worldwide Inc., the company that provided the testing software.

When all the exams were uploaded and graded, the results were not pretty. The national average score on the Multistate Bar Examination fell 2.8 points from the previous year; California’s pass rate was the lowest in a decade; and all but three of New York’s 15 schools saw lower pass rates for first-time takers. The National Conference of Bar Examiners recalculated the data to identify any problems, but ultimately attributed the decline to a class of graduates “less able” than their predecessors.

Law deans from 79 schools pushed back against that notion in a November letter to the national bar examiners requesting further investigation into the scoring. “The methodology and results of the investigation should be made fully transparent to all law school deans and state bar examiners,” they wrote.

NEW SCHOOL IN DALLAS

Don’t tell the folks behind the new University of North Texas Dallas College of Law that nobody wants to go to law school anymore. The school received more than 600 applications for this fall’s inaugural class — almost twice as many as expected — and enrolled 153 students. Administrators credited the high interest to the school’s relatively low tuition — slightly more than $14,000 per year for Texas residents.

It was the first new public law school to open since 2009, excluding existing private schools that have since merged into public universities.

The idea of a new Dallas law school had been percolating since at least 2005, and state lawmakers signed off on the project in 2009. But the school’s opening date was pushed back several times and some questioned whether Texas needed a ninth law school.

EMPTY COFFERS

Many law schools have been quietly cutting costs for the past several years, but budget shortfalls became more pressing during 2014. The State University of New York at Buffalo Law School; Albany Law School; and New England School of Law were among those that reduced the size of their faculties.

The William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in August reported facing a $3 million shortfall thanks to a 25 percent enrollment decline, and asked for state funds to help fill the gap.

The University of Minnesota allocated more than $2 million to its law school over the summer to cover a loss in tuition revenue. Some schools had to cut programs due to a lack of money. Lewis & Clark Law School shuttered its legal clinic in downtown Portland, Ore., this fall to save money.

BIG LAW BOUND

Columbia Law School (left) topped The National Law Journal’s annual list of schools feeding the most new associates to the largest law firms for the first time since 2008, bumping University of Pennsylvania Law School from the pinnacle it held the two previous years.

The NLJ’s Go-To Law Schools report counted the percentage of graduates who joined NLJ 250 firms, the nation’s largest firms by head count. Columbia sent 65 percent of its graduates to those firms, followed by the University of Chicago Law School and New York University School of Law at 55 percent; Harvard Law School at 54 percent; and the University of Pennsylvania Law School at nearly 53 percent.

Among the 50 schools on our Go-To list, 27 percent of recent graduates landed associate jobs at NLJ 250 firms, up from 25 percent previous year. That was the highest percentage we recorded since 2010.

A DEARTH OF STUDENTS

Law school enrollment plummeted for the fourth straight year in 2014, hitting its lowest point since 1987. The total number of J.D. students nationwide fell by nearly 7 percent this fall, while the number of first-year students was down 4.4 percent, the American Bar Association said.

New student enrollment was down by nearly 28 percent since its historic peak in 2010 — when many flocked to law school during the economic recession — and is the lowest since 1973, when there were only 151 ABA-accredited law schools; there are 204 now.

“Not only are fewer 1Ls enrolling than the year before, which cuts into revenue, but also the larger departing class means a greater loss in revenue because fewer bodies are paying tuition overall,” said Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. “The decline, in other words, hits law schools in two ways: successively smaller first-year enrollment, which is manifest in progressively larger declines in overall enrollment.”

BREAKING GROUND

A number of U.S. law schools had shovels in the ground or blueprints for new facilities in 2014, notwithstanding flagging enrollments. In the Northeast, for example, four schools opened multimillion-dollar ­facilities.

They included Syracuse University College of Law’s $90 million Dineen Hall (left) and Quinnipiac University School of Law’s $50 million center on the North Haven, Conn., campus.

Deans said planning began years ago to replace decades-old buildings. Fordham University School of Law, for example, started planning its New York City Lincoln Center campus in 1997. It replaces a 1961 building and can hold 500 more students than the school’s enrollment of 1,400. Other schools at the fundraising or construction stage include Georgia State University College of Law; the University of South Carolina School of Law; the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law; and Washburn University School of Law in Topeka.

Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law broke ground on its new $129 million downtown Phoenix campus in November.

A HOSTILE TAKEOVER

The Charleston School of Law has been embroiled in controversy since August 2013, when the private equity-backed InfiLaw chain of for-profit law schools announced plans to buy it. But the fighting really heated up in 2014 as faculty, students and even one of the school’s three owners aligned against the sale.

Opponents cited what they call lower admission standards and bar-passage rates at InfiLaw’s three existing schools in Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, and concern that the quality of education at Charleston would suffer. But the law school needs InfiLaw’s financial resources to weather a downturn in enrollment, proponents argue.

Faculty members spoke against the sale before a committee of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education in May, which ­recommended against approving it. Meanwhile, the American Bar Association’s accreditation committee reached the opposite conclusion in November. Despite that committee endorsement, the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar in December delayed blessing the sale on the ground that InfiLaw should first win the approval of the state ­commission.

The wrangling over ownership cost the school its newly appointed president Maryann Jones, who quit in late November after just eight days on the job.

CAMPUS CALLS FOR JUSTICE

The decisions by grand juries in New York and Missouri to not indict white police officers involved in the killing of unarmed black men reverberated on law campuses across the country for weeks.

Law students at numerous schools expressed their dismay by staging protests, walkouts, organizing rallies and hosting discussions about racial injustice. Some student organizations called on the federal government to bring charges against the officers involved in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. A small contingent of students even traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to help protect the legal rights of protestors there.

But nothing garnered quite as much national attention to the campus ferment as Columbia Law School and Georgetown University Law Center’s decisions to allow some students to delay their finals examinations in December. Minority student groups argued that the recent events had been traumatizing and that focusing on tests would be extremely difficult.

The option to delay finals didn’t go over well with some people, who claimed that the school were coddling students and giving some an advantage over others in the form of extra study time.