The Great Law School Bust Is About to Claim Its First Victim

Hamline University School of Law plans to merge with a local rival.

McGhiever/Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, law schools watched their new enrollment numbers collapse to lows not seen since the 1970s, as the tales of horror and woe from the legal job market continued to scare off would-be applicants. The lack of students has, of course, presented some financial difficulties for the academy. Schools have tried to tighten up their budgets in response (one especially oversize J.D. mill even closed a campus), but it was starting to seem inevitable that at least one would have to shut down entirely.

We haven’t quite reached that point. However, two law schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, have now announced plans to merge in order to stay afloat. Pending approval from the American Bar Association, Hamline University School of Law and William Mitchell College of Law will combine their operations starting next fall. The reports make it sound, more or less, like Hamline is getting absorbed by its old rival. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the new school will operate “independently” of Hamline—mostly out of William Mitchell’s campus—and will be headed by William Mitchell’s current dean. No word yet on layoffs.

These two institutions have apparently been considering a tie-up for some years, because the Minneapolis metro area was a bit overserved by four separate law schools (a midsize city probably doesn’t need that many). The fallout from the great law school bust evidently pushed them over the edge. William Mitchell’s first-year class has declined 45 percent since 2011, to 169 students, according to Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind; Hamline’s has fallen 56 percent to just 90.

According to an American Bar Association spokesman, this is the first time “in memory” that two accredited law schools have merged. (The ABA does not keep records of law school closings on hand, but the spokesman said no staff knew of any similar instances.) As far as the organization knows, no accredited law school has ever closed outright, either. But don’t be shocked if it eventually happens.