Whittier Law School.

 

Whittier College’s decision to close its law school is drawing sharp debate among legal academics in the blogosphere over whether the move is prudent or foolhardy.

Shuttering the law school is shortsighted when the legal market is strengthening, wrote Stephen Diamond, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Whittier’s business model—and that of plenty other law schools—is unsustainable given that it relies on students taking on thousands of dollars in debt to fund the salaries of many retirement-age professors who declined to move on, countered Robert Anderson, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law.

One contingent that seems to be in agreement that pulling the plug on Whittier Law School is wrong are current students. About 100 of them traveled from the law school’s Costa Mesa, California, campus on April 21 to the main Whittier College campus 30 miles away to protest the board of trustees’ recent decision to phase out the law school.

“They made a decision over the phone that would affect more than 400 students’ careers and futures,” Student Bar Association president Kristina Edrington told the Whittier Daily News at April 21’s protest. “Their indifference to us as a student body is unacceptable.”

Third-year law student Stephanie Rigoli said announcing the school’s impending closure less than two weeks before final exams was a “slap in the face.”

College officials announced April 19 that the law school will not accept new students in the fall and that it will cease operations once the current crop of students has graduated. The school has been plagued by dismal bar pass rates, low graduate employment and declining enrollment. Those same problems are buffeting a number of low-performing law schools nationwide, yet Whittier marks the first fully American Bar Association-accredited school to announced plans to close. Whittier Law faculty last week were unsuccessful in obtaining a temporary restraining order to halt the closure plans and are weighing further legal action.

At least one prominent legal academic believes that the public pontification about Whittier’s fate is premature and unhelpful. Legal bloggers ought to refrain from a “rush to judgment” on the decision to close the school, wrote Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Dean Daniel Rodriguez, on PrawfsBlawg.

“Whittier’s sudden closing is obviously a tough thing for current students and faculty,” Rodriguez wrote. “Perhaps the decision will be unraveled in the face of public pressure or via litigation. Yet there seems precious little basis to jump into a matter whose complex issues are essentially private, despite the efforts of many in and around the school to make this into a public spectacle.”

Whittier closing was likely the right decision, Anderson wrote April 21 on his blog Witnesseth: Law, Deals, & Data. The school needn’t have closed had law faculty retired as the pool of applicants and enrolled students shrank over the past seven years. Instead of lowering admissions standards in order to maintain class sizes, law schools ought to have retained those standards and admitted fewer students—up to 50 percent fewer in some cases, Anderson wrote. A glut of tenured law professors made that enrollment reduction difficult as schools needed tuition dollars to pay their salaries.

“If faculties had looked beyond their own personal financial self-interest they could have easily contracted to meet the market demand and avoided the disastrous effects that have afflicted law students and now law schools,” he wrote. “Sadly, the very faculty members whose institution provided them an outrageously rewarding career over many decades seemed the least likely to ‘pay it forward’ by helping to reduce expenses.”

Anderson called upon law faculty to “start making hard decisions” in order to give students better financial futures.

Taking the opposite position, Diamond wrote a post titled, “Whittier’s Big Mistake” on his blog Stephen-Diamond.com. Whittier College is getting out of the legal education business at a time when the job market is stronger than it has been in the past, he wrote.

“It appears as if the trustees are suffering from a kind of cognitive disability–they are exiting a market that has shown steady improvement over the past five years,” Diamond wrote.

Legal employment in Whittier’s Orange County, California, market increased 22 percent from 2013 to 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Diamond wrote, and salaries have increased as well. According to ABA data, just 21 percent of the class of 2015 had secured a full-time, long-term job requiring a law degree 10 months after leaving campus.

While allowing that the school’s bar pass rate has suffered in recent years (just 22 percent of its graduates passed the July 2016 exam in California), he said the school has served as a gateway into the legal profession for minority students for decades.

“In a state like California that is very important, particularly in the era of [President Donald] Trump when racist and anti-immigrant messaging is making life even more difficult for black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students to enter the most rewarding professions,” Diamond wrote.