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Whittier’s law school is shutting down

[ 65 ] April 20, 2017 |

Whittier College, a small liberal arts school in Orange County   somewhere in the Los Angeles-area megapolis (edit: apparently only the law school is in Orange County; the original college is in LA County; thanks to commenter rea for the correction] most famous for once upon a time enhancing Richard Nixon’s pre-existing human capital, announced yesterday that it wasn’t going to enroll a new law school class this fall.  This in effect means the school is closing once its current students graduate.

Whittier is the first unambiguous ABA law school closure since the law school crisis started to really get rolling about five years ago. (Indiana Tech announced a few months ago that it was closing its fledgling operation, but the school came into existence in 2013, so that doesn’t exactly count.  Also, Hamline University unloaded its law school onto the free-standing William Mitchell Law School in a “merger” that was a de facto closure — Mitchell/Hamline as its now known is no larger than Mitchell used to be by itself).

What’s interesting about this development is that, financially speaking, Whittier doesn’t seem to be in significantly worse shape than the average ABA law school.  I just finished a study that estimates the average non-elite (non-top 10ish) law school saw an approximately 35% decline in total tuition revenue between 2011 and 2015.  The number for Whittier? 38.9%.   Whittier cut its effective tuition per student by 6.85% during this time frame, which is half the rate at which the average non-elite law school slashed actual per student tuition.  (Almost all law schools outside of the elites depend on tuition for the vast majority of their self-generated operating revenues).

So why is Whittier closing? The answer seems straightforward: its parent institution decided it wasn’t going to subsidize it any longer.  Whittier College is a small school: law students make up more than 20% of the total campus enrollment of around 2,200.  It has a modest but actually sort of decent endowment for a small liberal arts college — $90 million, i.e., the same as Sarah Lawrence.  But obviously it isn’t some sprawling operation that can afford to subsidize a money-losing law school more or less indefinitely.

Leaving aside the financial nitty gritty, Whittier really shouldn’t have continued operating anyway.  Its graduates who were first time takers of the California bar last July racked up a 22% passage rate.  A total of 30 of 141 2015 graduates of the school had full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage (aka an actual legal job, broadly defined) ten months after graduation, and five of those people were employed by the school itself.  The 89% of 2016 graduates with law school debt took out an average of $179,056 in federal loans while in law school, which means that with accrued interest and origination fees they had well over $200,000 in law school debt alone at graduation.

The school reduced its full time faculty from 41 to 31 over the past five years, but per its tax filings it had several law faculty making more than $200,000 per year, which is frankly absurd for a school in its financial situation.  Indeed the only people among the dozen highest paid employees on campus who weren’t central administrators were six law professors  (To be fair, this particular sort of absurdity remains rampant among low-ranked law schools with terrible employment and bar passage numbers).

Anyway, as imitation is the sincerest form of academic administration, it will be interesting to see how many other central administrations now feel emboldened to make similar decisions.

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  1. rea says:

    I was going to say that Whittier is actually in LA County, but it appears that the law school is (or was) not actually in Whittier, but out in Costa Mesa on its own separate campus.

    I actually lived in Whittier in my youth in the West that is forgotten . . .

  2. Colin Day says:

    Well Campos, you won’t have Whittier Law School to kick around anymore.

  3. LawDdaw says:

    Finally the waters are lapping on the ABA’s shores. I hope this isn’t the end but just the beginning. Not until schools like Fl Coastal, Fooley, Valpo, etc. close will the market be anywhere close to a correction.

    • Just_Dropping_By says:

      Finally the waters are lapping on the ABA’s shores.

      If the ABA had shores previously, then weren’t waters by definition lapping on them? Conversely, if waters weren’t lapping on at least part of the ABA then wasn’t the ABA by definition without shores? Either way, I’m not sure what the word “finally” is doing in that sentence.

      • LawDdaw says:

        LOL, fair enough. But it depends on the definition of “shores”, right? ABA schools have long been protected by levees constructed of partial – if not misleading -information regarding outcomes, creating an unnatural state of affairs that prevented anything close to a functioning market. Seems that period is ending because nature is doing its job, finding the natural shoreline, which means some schools will perish. Hence the metaphor.

  4. AdamPShort says:

    I’m sure you have dealt with this elsewhere, so I apologize for asking you to repeat yourself, Professor, but what is the underlying policy error that is producing this crisis and what can be done about it?

    Happy to be pointed to something previously written on this topic. Thanks in advance.

  5. Domino says:

    “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, whose does?”

  6. Harry Hamid says:

    I graduated from a low-ish ranked law school before all the problems really kicked in. And sure, I had no idea why I was going, but I didn’t leave with $200,000 of loans and I lived well within my means when I graduated.

    Thinning the herd when it comes to law schools wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

  7. Bloix says:

    Whittier is a historically Quaker college. Quaker schools have a tendency to be socially conscious and aware of their students’ needs. I see no basis other than cynicism for your conclusion that the reason for the closure “seems” to be that the school didn’t want to subsidize the law school anymore. Maybe you’re right, but until you provide some evidence, I am willing to accept the Trustees’ honest admission that the law school is no longer able to recruit students who are capable of passing the bar and practicing law. Here is what the Trustees say:

    “The Board of Trustees has been greatly concerned by the challenges affecting our law program… the Board appointed a subcommittee to explore options for the future of the Law School. These have included working with the administration and faculty to redirect resources and efforts to improve student outcomes and right-size the operation in a manner to achieve enhanced academic viability…

    “We believe we have looked at every realistic option to continue a successful law program. Unfortunately, these efforts did not lead to a desired outcome.”

    https://www.law.whittier.edu/index/news/article/a-message-from-the-whittier-college-board-of-trustees

    When they say that the issue was academic – not financial – viability, I believe them.

  8. DanaHoule says:

    Recently dealt third-hand w a state-appointed attorney for an indigent person in a family law situation. The person was grossly irresponsible…at least to the client, if not the personal bottom line, since the work is paid at a flat rate of $150-$200 per case, so the economic incentive is to spend as little time as possible per case. The attorney is also a magistrate in another jurisdiction. That seemed ethically sketchy to me, but it also seemed wierd that this attorney is spending time for nickle and dime stuff. I looked up the attorney, and laughed when I saw the law school: Cooley. Then it made more sense: buried under law school debt.

    • L2P says:

      $200 per CASE? Times must be desperate indeed…

      • DanaHoule says:

        There are strong structural explations for why Texas executes so many poor people.

      • AdamPShort says:

        Texas is unusually bad, but it’s a problem everywhere. I am interested in defense investigator work but don’t have a law enforcement background, so to that end I have done some unpaid work for some area defense attorneys. I can’t get work with public defenders because even to read the reports I would give them – that I am willing to prepare for free – would take more time than they can afford to spend on the cast majority of cases.

  9. gmoot says:

    I’m interested in the implication (I think, or at least that’s how I read it), that Whittier should have lowered wages of law school professors to reflect the low bar passage rates. First, $200K for a professor in LA County/Orange County doesn’t seem completely out of hand, given the cost of living, the costs the professors incurred in receiving their degrees, etc.

    More importantly, if Whittier had said, “we’re going to cut the pay of professors to $150K, even those who started long before the bottom dropped out of the law school market,” wouldn’t they have faced an enormous backlash? Wouldn’t that have exacerbated quality problems, given professor-ing is a national market? And, isn’t this a cure worse than the disease? I guess I have a hard time with any argument that if an organization is losing money, the solution is to cut worker pay.

    Sorry if I misread.

    • Crusty says:

      I don’t know that you misread, but (and I know there are some her who will jump on me for saying this), 1) I have a hard time thinking of law professors as “workers,” and 2) to the extent that the law school scam is indeed a scam, the professors, particularly those making more than $200K (and I hear you that it isn’t all that much in OC), are in on the scam. Think of it this way- with those bar passage rates, those law professors are teaching to rooms full of people who will never become lawyers. By that measure, it would seem that they are grossly overpaid.

    • Morse Code for J says:

      Brief explanation of the scam to differentiate from other economic sectors: Law schools are meant to turn students into lawyers (for which a passing bar exam score is necessary), or at least people who earn what the public supposes lawyers do. Obviously, graduates who do not pass the bar will tend to do substantially worse than those who do, and often those graduates were identifiable before matriculating by their LSAT scores and GPA. These graduates also tend to pay more for their JDs than those with better LSATs, GPAs, and job prospects down the road. Most or all of this money will come from taxpayers to the law schools, never to be repaid while causing misery to those graduates. Whittier’s cost of attendance this past year was about $61,000.

      I would feel sorry for the employees of a failed investment bank or a cafeteria found to be serving human fetal tissue before I felt sorry for law professors who lost their jobs because they could no longer maintain the pretense of educating students for a career in the law.

    • Mellano says:

      Is “law professor” a national market, such that a law professor at Whittier could reasonably send out a CV and jump somewhere else to avoid a pay cut? It’s not like Whittier is the only school to be thinning faculty numbers and facing reduced revenues.

      And even if it is, is there a close correlation between the metrics for “desirable law school hire” and “effective classroom teacher”? I would guess that faculty hiring is done more on background (I.e., degrees, clerkships, white shoe firms) and publications than teaching ability.

      • Crusty says:

        I think it is a national market in the sense that a law professor at Whittier might have previously considered law professor jobs anywhere, but it isn’t quite a national market in the sense that the market is highly efficient such that a law professor at Whittier could just jump somewhere else to avoid a pay cut. The jobs are few and far between and highly prized and I suspect that the only people who could easily make jumps are superstar established types or perhaps some of the young rising super stars.

        To put it another way, a star faculty member at Columbia who wanted to move to the west coast for some reason could find a good position. A whittier professor who might have gotten the whittier job after applying for positions in NY, Washington, Texas, Chicago and California would have a hard time just jumping over anyhwere.

        • Srsly Dad Y says:

          Indeed, for roughly 99% of them, if they could get a job elsewhere they wouldn’t be at Whittier. They are SOL.

          • Denverite says:

            Yes and no. Just glancing at their more junior faculty members, they have decent academic CVs. (Though not necessarily in the Yale JD/SCOTUS clerkship sense from what I saw — more like Georgetown JD plus a PhD or other graduate degree.) They would probably have as good of a chance of getting a gig somewhere else as anyone.

            But the legal academic hiring market is pretty brutal right now. “The same as anyone” isn’t very good. I’ve got friends in the past couple of years who a decade ago would have gone into legal academia but now chose to do something else (one went to a super high end plaintiff’s firm and the other started an appellate boutique — the latter was just bemoaning how he makes half of what he would as a partner at a big Denver firm, although he only has to work 20-30 hours a week). They just didn’t feel like spending 2-3 years assembling the requisite publication record and fellowship/visiting gig just to have a coin flip at best (and probably much less than that) of getting a job.

        • djw says:

          I imagine Whittier faculty would be most competitive at peer institutions. (Perhaps they have a star who’s slumming it and could move up, but that would be an outlier.) My sense is most peer institutions aren’t doing much hiring right now, and are hoping they can get their costs in line with reduced enrollment and tuition revenue via attrition and retirements and not actually have to fire anyone.

    • bobbyhurley says:

      Another question: Shouldn’t we consider the perpetrators of a scam if they are willfully ignorant of the scam, especially if punishing those perpetrators in some way results in greater harm to the perpetrators? Of course, the victims almost couldn’t be more harmed. And there’s no reason to assume they would be. But what if they were? Isn’t that concern enough to preclude punishment?

    • djw says:

      First, $200K for a professor in LA County/Orange County doesn’t seem completely out of hand, given the cost of living,

      This is astonishing.

      The average salary (presumably lower without the law faculty dragging it up) at Whittier is, per AAUP, 65/85/115K, for assistants, associates, and full professors respectively. Keep in mind that most of these people teach more classes and have considerably more graduate training than the law faculty. I’m sure some of them have convinced themselves they need twice the income as their colleagues to avoid poverty, but I’m not at all sure why anyone else should take such a nonsensical, self-serving view seriously. (Those poor biologists and sociologists somehow soldier on, eeking out some sorry excuse for a life on 150%, rather than well north of 300%, of the median area household income.)

      The old story is that law faculty need to be paid more than most faculty because they have to be dragged away from lucrative high-powered lawyering careers to do so. This has become increasingly less credible, and it would hardly seem unreasonable for the dean of a struggling, money-losing law school to test such a theory.

  10. MacK says:

    The faculty have filed a case trying to prevent the closing – including seeking a TRO. The Brief is very interesting:

    http://taxprof.typepad.com/files/whittier-tro.pdf

    • Crusty says:

      Very interesting. Thanks for the link. I’ve only skimmed it, but it seems pretty telling that the argument is that the law school is profitable and the professors would be harmed if it is shut down, ergo, it should stay open, never mind that its students don’t pass the bar.

    • Fortunado says:

      As with the Sweet Briar story a couple years back, the whole idea of suing an employer to force it to keep operating makes my head spin.

      Is there any chance they can win?

  11. NewishLawyer says:

    Semi-OT but paralegal wages in the Bay Area seem to be fairly high, 48K to 72k or an hourly rate north of 20 an hour.

    Though in the Bay Area you always need to compete with tech and their ability to offer a lot of perks. Juicero jokes notwithstanding, money is still being poured into tech and that is where it is at.

    Though what I find interesting about paralegal positions is that they tend to be a combination of either young college grads or older non-college grads.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Paralegal here–older college grad who looked at the economics of law school about fifteen years ago and said “Hell, no!” 48K to 72K does not strike me as “fairly high” for the Bay Area. I am in a much lower cost of living area and fall in that range. This may explain the demographics you observe: the money isn’t such that this is seen as a permanent career path by anyone with a degree, but is good enough to attract the on-the-job-training crowd. Free advice: if you are ever hiring, and you can get one or the other for the same price, go for the older non-college crowd. They already know where the court clerk’s office is.

      • NewishLawyer says:

        The former blue to pink collar profession is something I see more on the East Coast than West.

        Paralegals I know here either do it for the experience or they have other interests and just want a rent paying job with more or less reasonable hours.

      • lahtiji says:

        +1

        Fell into this career after bombing out of grad school, trading “publish or perish” for “bill or die.” Now I’m coming up on 16 years as a paralegal. I had considered law school before, but wanted to see what the work environment was like before making another potential mistake. The Great Recession drove a lot of JDs into the paralegal field, but the skill sets are completely different. When I started, a question I was asked a lot was “What’s it like being a male in a profession that’s 95% female?” Since the Great Recession, it’s been “Are you a disbarred lawyer?”

        From my perspective, the costs involved in obtaining a JD and becoming a practicing lawyer weren’t worth the supposedly higher income. Most days I leave at 5:30, and if I work nights or weekends, I’m getting OT for it. Most associates are only earning 10-15% more than I am, with a lot more pressure on them.

        • Srsly Dad Y says:

          To reinforce your view — I have a close friend who thrived as a paralegal and considers her decision to go to law school and become a lawyer a huge mistake, even though she practiced for a while at a major DC firm. (Her partner is a happier lawyer.) She has since been an EMT and a writer of government contracts proposals; I think she should open a B&B when her little kids are grown.

          • lahtiji says:

            I have had practicing lawyers (named partners in their own firms) and a Federal magistrate judge tell me if they had to do it over again, they would have become a paralegal. Not sure if they’re just saying that to be polite.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          You are very nearly my twin! The income is an interesting aspect. The ceiling for JDs is much higher, but in the current climate I wonder about both the mean and the median incomes. Certainly the cost of entry is vastly lower for paralegals. If the associates in your firm are only earning 15% more than you, factor in their student debt and you are doing better. If they go on to be partners, that will change. But most won’t.

          The great thing about “paralegal” is that it is an absurdly underdefined job title. You and I are both paralegals. This tells me virtually nothing about how you spend your day or you about mine. This means that if you are working for the right firm, there is a lot of room for making yourself indispensable, with the benefits thereof. Without that student debt, and with the freedom to walk away.

          As for the gender ratio, we live in a sexist world. That can mean that being a guy in a girls’ job makes you girly, but it need not. I am fluent in lawyer-speak, and can dress the part when I want to. So I deal with lawyers by acting like their equal. This usually works very well. I assume it wouldn’t were I female. They would probably think I was a pushy bitch.

          • Crusty says:

            I’m curious, how do y’all find you’re treated where you work, aside from straight benefits and pay? People have asked me if I recommend becoming a paralegal and I’ve told them that from what I’ve seen, there is a divide at law firms about how employees are treated, i.e., there are lawyers, and then everyone else in the second class. Then again, I’ve worked with lots of assholes.

            • NewishLawyer says:

              I always try and treat the staff well but I’ve also commended on doing so when I was a summer associate. If anything, I’ve seen senior staff be treated with more respect and decency than junior lawyers.

              I think it depends on how firms pay their paralegals. In California, a lot of firms seem to keep staff on a straight hourly pay scale and absolutely refuse overtime. This provides decent hours.

              Most other places in the US seem to make paralegals on salary and this means longish hours for less pay than lawyers usually. But I’ve also seen a lot of eager beavers willing to put in the hours.

            • Richard Hershberger says:

              It varies wildly. There is the big-law/small-law divide, and a lot of paralegals work for corporations.

              I have never worked the corporate side, so I can’t really comment.

              I dabbled on the big-law side and hated it. Big law firms tend not to be happy places.

              So small law it is. My first job lasted three years, working for this guy. It gave me a lot of experience, both in the various facets of the job and in working for a dick. The guy I work for now, on the other hand, is a complete mensch. I have been with him about seven and a half years. We have a great working relationship. I hardly ever work extra hours, but if I did it would be due to a genuine need, and he wouldn’t abuse it. I could make more money elsewhere, but almost certainly with a lower quality of life.

              • lahtiji says:

                My first job lasted three years, working for this guy.

                What a read that was.

                • lahtiji says:

                  Also: Christ, what an asshole!

                • Richard Hershberger says:

                  Were I a better person I would not have enjoyed reading it so much, and that was about eight years since I last spoke with the guy. Note the loving care with which that ruling was crafted. It should have been much shorter and served its purpose. This clearly was heartfelt.

                  I have for years dined out on having worked for him. I was once in an elevator with a lawyer to whom I had not connection whatsoever. He had visited another firm on the same floor. He obviously was a lawyer, of the bow-tie sartorial school, and started schmoozing me, probably reflexively: What did I do? Who did I work for? How long had I been there? Who did I work for before that? When I answered that last one, he was stunned. When I told him I had worked there for three whole years he proclaimed me a saint! It was very weird, but I learned from it: whenever I am in small-talk mode with local lawyers I have this in my conversational arsenal.

                • Doug says:

                  That was amazing! Understated, but brutal.

                  “Out of Mixter’s one-hundred and six pages of exceptions, he only asserts, in one sentence, that he is ‘sincerely remorseful’, without elaboration.”

                  Boom.

          • lahtiji says:

            The theoretical range for lawyers is unbounded, yes. But as with almost any profession, if you go into it solely for the earning potential*, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. I like the variety of work, the opportunity to learn new things, and the chance to work and think somewhat independently. Plus I get the opportunity to lurk here.

            *Finance and other types of organized crime being the obvious exceptions.

    • Redwood Rhiadra says:

      Unfortunately, to afford a studio apartment here you need to be making 100K.

  12. MacK says:

    I have long predicted that when the first “respectable” college closes its law school, it will be seen as validating closure as an appropriate solution for numerous other law schools and this will trigger a wave of closures. I am also of the view that it is law schools that are affiliated with larger institutions, who can realise some value from the closure – reusing the law school facilities, or selling off the campus, that are likely to move fastest (stand alone law schools are less likely to do this, since there is no separation between the law school administration and the school – they’d be voting for their own abolition, while a larger institution has a more independent view.) Whittier College is ranked in the middle of the pack of Liberal Arts Colleges nationally, that are ranked (a lot are not) so US News ranks it at 132/239 and is decently regarded in California too, while the law school is not even ranked and very much in the 4th tier – so it is a decided drag on the College’s reputation.

    I think a lot of other Colleges and Universities in California and across the US will notice this decision, and put serious thought into closing their law school if it is uneconomic, has poor student outcomes and is becoming a net drag on both the college/university’s reputation and mission – and particularly if there is an effective gain to be had by say repurposing the law school facilities or selling off the campus.

    • NewishLawyer says:

      How convertible are law school buildings? My law school alma mater is not doing so well either. Our recent bar pass rates are shockingly low (though not as bad as Whittier) and we are connected to a larger university. It also occupies a large piece of land in the middle of San Francisco.

      But how easy is it to convert a building of classrooms and admin offices plus a library into something else? I imagine that things just need to be torn down.

      • lahtiji says:

        I’m sure some shady for-profit college will snap it right up.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern says:

        Suffolk University, which is in downtown Boston, has financial issues* and as such have sold some non-law buildings over the last several years. Old brick shells that probably held admin offices and such. Developers gut them to the shell and then put in condos that seems to go for $5 to $10 million apiece.

        *As in their bond debt is somewhere between 2x and 3x their endowment, 8% of their budget is dedicated to debt service, and they’re on like their sixth president since 2010.

        • Denverite says:

          It’s not college-level, but Denver Public Schools has sold off a number of old (mostly around 100 years old) school buildings in the past decade or so. Other schools — charter or private — bought a lot of them (we were just at one last night). A few were gutted and converted to condos. I think a church bought one of them.

      • MacK says:

        If you are an existing college or university, there is really nothing to convert – I mean you can use class-rooms and administrative offices, and the library can be used for study space etc. – maybe you can move some graduate programs in.

        If it is in the middle of San Francisco, well the library can easily be gutted and turned into office space or condos, the administrative offices are offices, and the classroom building torn down or gutted and redeveloped. Even Golden Gate or USF could repurpose the buildings or make a pretty large chuck of money selling them. A large piece of developable land in San Francisco is worth much $$

  13. LawDdaw says:

    I do hope we’ll see more schools follow. But I just don’t think we will. Too many dumb kids, or willfully ignorant kids, eager to fill the seats. However, if Congress ties loan availability to outcomes, all bets are off, but again, an unlikely scenario.

    • Unemployed_Northeastern says:

      Given Lamar Alexander’s longstanding, public desire to limit graduate federal student lending (he suggested a $150k lifetime cap a few years ago) and how terrifyingly responsive DeVos has been to the *concerns* of private student lenders and guarantors in the last few weeks, I wouldn’t put much faith in unlimited GradPLUS loans surviving the HEA reauthorization.

  14. JCougar says:

    Good riddance. The demand for new lawyers is virtually flat where I work. Nobody of any age is being hired. Living in poverty while you eat what you kill is the only solution.

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