Students at Thomas Jefferson School of Law starting in the fall will no longer attend classes here. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Jefferson School of Law welcomed students to a gleaming $90 million downtown San Diego campus in January 2011, touting the brand new facility’s state-of-the-art technology and creature comforts, including a meditation room in the 40,000-square-foot law library.

The eight-story campus would allow for a modest expansion of the school’s nearly 1,000 J.D. students, officials said.

The timing could not have been worse, as 2011 proved to be the high point of law school enrollment in the United States. Over the next five years, the number of first-year students plummeted 27 percent, with Thomas Jefferson hit especially hard. The school had 521 J.D. students this fall, according to data from the American Bar Association, or just over half as many as 2011.

This week, the school announced it will vacate its custom-built law campus and relocate to a smaller space in a 24-story downtown San Diego office building that also houses Bank of American and several law firms, including Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith. Classes will be held in the new space starting in the fall.

Thomas Jefferson Dean Joan Bullock characterized the move as “an important investment in strategic planning for the law school, streamlining the educational experience for students and faculty alike,” in a press release. Relocating will allow the school to put more money toward students and less toward rent, according to the announcement.

In an email, Bullock said student response to the move has been “optimistic and hopeful.”

“They appreciate the law school continuing to have confidence in their abilities and their success,” she wrote.

But Thomas Jefferson’s abandonment of its once-heralded campus offers a stark illustration of the struggles lower-tier law schools face amid sagging enrollment, dismal bar pass rates, and financial strain. Standalone law schools such as Thomas Jefferson lack the funding lifeline that comes with being part of a larger university, where the central administration can provide funds to address operating shortfalls.

The ABA in November placed Thomas Jefferson on probation for violating a number of its accreditation standards, including the rule requiring schools admit only students who “appear capable” of graduating and passing the bar and the rule requiring schools to maintain a “rigorous academic program.” The ABA also concluded that Thomas Jefferson had run afoul of the rule that schools have the “financial resources” to operate in compliance with the accreditation standards. The ABA mandated that the school provide a description of its “efforts to reduce its space costs and the impact of any reduction of space on the academic program.” Bullock wrote that the move should help the school return to the ABA’s good graces.

Thomas Jefferson in 2008 took out $127 million in bonds to build the new campus, but by 2013 the debt had become too burdensome. Standard & Poor’s lowered the school’s credit rating and in 2014 Thomas Jefferson entered into an agreement with its bold holders to turn over ownership of the building in exchange for an $87 million reduction in the debt. The school then leased the building back from the bondholders. (Property records indicate a transfer of the deed to the building last week.) Thomas Jefferson would pay $6 million annually in rent and interest on the remaining debt, instead of the $12 million a year it had been paying in principal and interest. The deal put the school “on a solid financial footing,” said former dean Thomas Guernsey at the time.

Similarly, Bullock said the upcoming move will leave the school with a “debt-free balance sheet.”

As the number of students enrolling at Thomas Jefferson fell off, the school lowered it admissions standards. The median LSAT score of its incoming students was 151 in 2011. This fall, that figure was 144.

Thomas Jefferson’s bar pass rate, while never impressive, weakened accordingly. In 2012, 56 percent of the school’s first-time takers passed the California bar in 2012. It was down to 30 percent in July 2017—the lowest among the state’s 21 ABA-accredited law schools and 40 percent below the average pass rate among those schools.

The ABA is currently requiring the school to disclose its most recent first-time bar pass rates to each applicant, which is likely to further complicate the school’s efforts to enroll more qualified students.

Thomas Jefferson is leasing 56,000 square feet in its new home, according to Bullock. That’s down from 305,000 at the current location. The school said the lower costs will allow it to put more funding toward student scholarships.

“The new campus’ Class-A building aligns with the law school’s student-first vision and its commitment to providing an even more meaningful and engaged learning environment,” according to the school’s announcement of the move. “Repositioning with smaller classes will afford students more one-on-one attention and support from faculty and administration, helping better prepare students for the practice of law from their first year through graduation.”