This week, the world of legal education reached a new and dismal milestone when California’s Whittier College announced that it would finally close down its law school after years of declining enrollment.
This is a first, I’m told. According to an American Bar Association spokesman, no fully accredited law school has ever—ever!—outright shut its doors before.
Like many of its peers, Whittier Law School was rocked by the collapse of law school applications that began in 2011, after widely reported horror stories about the stagnant legal job market started driving away the country’s directionless liberal arts grads. It counted just 132 students in its first-year class in 2016, down from 303 in 2010, according to Law School Transparency. And while law school enrollment stabilized overall last year, Whittier’s was down another 9 percent. Its graduates’ employment stats were fairly abysmal, too: Only 21 percent of its recent alums obtained long-term, full-time legal jobs in the months after graduation, while almost 28 percent were unemployed.
The closure won’t be immediate. In an open letter, Whittier’s board of trustees said the five-decade-old school of law would not accept any new students for the coming year, but would give current enrollees an opportunity to finish their degrees. “At the appropriate time, the program of legal education will be discontinued,” the letter said. The board apparently sprung the news on a group of astonished students at an “emergency meeting” that left some in tears. Meanwhile, faculty members have sued to stop the closure—because, well, they’re lawyers.
Whittier isn’t the only institution that’s fallen prey to the law school bust. In 2015, Hamline University’s School of Law merged into its Minneapolis-area neighbor William Mitchell College of Law. And in November, Indiana Tech Law School—which had received partial accreditation from the ABA—said it would shut down after four extremely disappointing years in action.
But Whittier is, again, the first fully accredited law school to simply go bust rather than find itself absorbed by a rival. While many people have thought a reckoning like this was inevitable, others weren’t so sure. A few years ago, Steven Davidoff Solomon, a law professor at the University of California–Berkeley who contributes to the New York Times, made a small bet with me that no accredited law schools would go under before 2018. He argued, in part, that universities would prefer to keep even ailing law schools open and generating revenue rather than shut them down and leave their expensive facilities empty. Nobody wants a shell of a building on campus, after all.
But apparently Whittier found something else to do with its real estate. In January, it sold the land its law school was built on for a $13 million profit,* according to the faculty’s lawsuit. The professors, who apparently believed the proceeds would go back to their school, now claim in their lawsuit that the college is profiting illegally from the transaction. But however that case turns out, it seems pretty obvious now that there’s no economic law that will keep a failing educational institution open.
*Correction, April 21, 2017: This post originally stated that the land was sold for $13 million total.