John Marshall Law School is set to become part of the University of Illinois at Chicago, making it the Windy City’s first public law school.
Officials at both institutions signed off on the university’s acquisition of the private law school Thursday afternoon, after more than two years of discussions. The law school will become the UIC John Marshall Law School once the transition is complete in the fall of 2019. Administrators said the move is not a merger because the law school is coming fully under the university’s umbrella of programs. No money is exchanging hands between the two institutions, and all of John Marshall’s assets, including faculty and real estate, will transfer over to the university.
“There are a lot of big benefits,” said University of Illinois at Chicago Provost Susan Poser, herself a former dean at the University of Nebraska College of Law. “When you take a standalone law school and integrate it into a huge research university, you have an opportunity to really put lawyers in context. We’re really going to emphasize interdisciplinary studies.”
Becoming part of the University of Illinois Chicago will strengthen John Marshall’s long-term future and create new opportunities for students and faculty, said Dean Darby Dickerson in an interview.
“First and foremost, it’s so exciting for us to become Chicago’s public law school,” she said. “Even though we’re private, we’ve had a public-oriented mission since we were founded in 1899. This will help us expand and deepen that mission.”
Both institutions revealed in November that they were in preliminary talks to join forces, citing the research university’s lack of a law school and the potential expansion of John Marshall’s programing. John Marshall spent the ensuing months holding town halls with students and alumni, while it and the university examined financial issues, faculty transitions and accreditation matters related to a possible transfer.
John Marshall would be just the latest private law school to go public in recent years. Texas A&M University bought the private Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in 2013 for $25 million. The private Franklin Pierce Law Center merged with the public University of New Hampshire to become the University of New Hampshire School of Law in 2010. Those moves have been a rankings boon for both law schools. Texas Wesleyan landed in U.S. News & World Report’s unranked tier in 2013, but has since rocketed up to No. 80. New Hampshire now sits at No. 85, up from No. 143 in 2011.
Illinois already has thee public law schools—the flagship University of Illinois College of Law, Northern Illinois University College of Law, and Southern Illinois University School of Law—but none are located in the Chicago metropolitan area. The city has six private law schools, including John Marshall.
John Marshall’s transfer into Chicago’s largest public university is good news for the city’s legal community, said Dan Rodriguez, dean of the nearby Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. “The timing of this merger is especially ideal, as the legal profession is demanding creative responses to our contemporary challenges, including the access to justice gap and the protection and advancement of the rule of law,” he said. “This marriage of two innovative centers of learning is indeed a creative response.”
Poser and Dickerson said that the missions of both institutions are aligned, with each dedicated to diversity and access. Minorities made up more than one-third of John Marshall’s J.D. students last year, according to data from the American Bar Association. U.S. News & World Report this year ranked the University of Illinois at Chicago, with about 30,000 students, as the 10th most diverse college campus in the country.
Plans call for lower tuition once the law school becomes part of the university. Poser said it’s too soon to know what tuition will be in the fall of 2019, but said she anticipates a “significant” reduction, especially for in-state students. Annual tuition for John Marshall’s full-time J.D. program is now $48,600.
Law students also will have access to university amenities, such as student housing and recreational facilities—things that John Marshall doesn’t currently offer as a standalone school, Dickerson said. The transition will open up more opportunities for dual degrees, research collaborations, and other interdisciplinary programs, Poser added. The university spends about $350 million annually on research, and faculty from its public administration, engineering, and medical colleges are eager to work with their counterparts at John Marshall to explore how the law is impacting their fields, Poser said. Similarly, their expertise may be beneficial to John Marshall’s nine legal clinics, she said.
“This whole thing came out of a vision: What could we do with a law school at UIC?” Poser said. “It was sort of the missing piece around here. We already have 15 colleges, but we don’t have a law school.”
The decision to transfer John Marshall into the University of Illinois at Chicago was not driven by financial distress, Dickerson said. The school is on solid financial footing with cash on hand, and it owns outright its building inside Chicago’s famed downtown loop, mere blocks from Lake Michigan. The law school will remain in that location, which is about two miles and several “L” train stops from the university’s campus.
Still, Dickerson acknowledged that John Marshall was not immune to legal education’s recent downturn. The school enrolled about 40 percent fewer J.D. students in 2017 than it did in 2011, ABA data shows, though the school expects enrollment to increase for the upcoming academic year. And it underwent several rounds of faculty and staff cuts in that time. This year it offered voluntary buyouts to some senior faculty members, Dickerson said.
“This decision wasn’t so much, ‘Can we survive the current downturn?’ but, ‘What does this look like, 20 and 30 years out?’” she said.
It was UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis who initially approached former John Marshall dean John Corkery about acquiring the law school in 2015, Poser said. Those talks didn’t progress until June 2016, when Amiridis and Poser had an informal meeting with the executive committee of John Marshall’s board of trustees and broached the subject. (The two institutions discussed a potential partnership in 1998 but abandoned the idea three years later.)
This time, the university studied the financial feasibility of bringing on the law school and determined that it would not pull funds away from existing programs. The due diligence process ramped up last fall after the two institutions went public with the proposal.
John Marshall students and alumni initially had some concerns, according to Dickerson.
“Obviously this is a big transition for a law school that has been fiercely independent for 120 years,” Dickerson said. “Some people were concerned about the loss of autonomy or how it would change their personal relationship with the school.”
But the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive once the law school was able to communicate the benefits of the deal, she added. Faculty members on both campuses have since bestowed their blessings on the transfer.
The acquisition is not yet final. It will require the approval of the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, as well as regional accreditor The Higher Learning Commission and the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
“This is not a ‘save the law school move,’” Poser said. “It’s really something for the future of the law school.”