THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING LAW SCHOOL
Phillip J. Closius
University of Toledo College of Law
In academic year 1999-2000, the University of Toledo College of Law
faculty and administration performed a task that may be unprecedented in modern
American legal education. During
a series of luncheon meetings (that’s not the unprecedented part), the group
focused on the topic of enrollment - what size student body should we have given
the realities of our market and the pedagogical goals we wish to achieve. We analyzed this issue without an extensive reliance on
revenue stream and the risk of losing resources if we admitted fewer students.
Since we administer both a full and part-time (mainly evening) program,
we also discussed our obligation to serve our metropolitan community (almost all
of our part time applications) in addition to the dictates of establishing a
regionally recognized full time program. We
had been targeting an evening entering class of 50 – a large number in a
metropolitan area with a population base of less than 400,000.
We concluded that
our ideal size was 430 students – approximately 110 part-time and 320
full-time matriculants. That
enrollment would allow us to target entering classes of approximately 120 full
time students and approximately 30 part time students. These insights provided the basis for a strategic plan that
embraced the downsizing (from approximately 525 students), contained specific
quality goals and detailed a resource commitment from the University (see
Appendix A). The plan was
eventually adopted by the University Board of Trustees. The major resource
concession made by the College of Law was a reduction in the tenure track
faculty from 32 to 28. This
reduction had been voluntarily accomplished by a University implemented buy-out
plan for senior faculty members. We
are now almost a full year away from that process.
This article is an attempt to indicate the considerations that led to our
decisions and to begin the process of analyzing the effect the strategic plan
will have on the College.
I. Good Things Come in Small Packages: The Advantages of Size Reductions
The primary benefit from downsizing is
an increase in the quality of the entering class.
While reducing numbers will not, by itself, improve the entering
credentials for the long term, the reduction will buy a school some time to
improve other areas of its academic program.
We hope that the immediate benefit gained from admitting fewer students
will enable us to implement programs and marketing strategies that will continue
to increase the quality over time. Toledo,
like most law schools, had experienced a drop in applications as the national
market declined in the 1990’s. While
we were able to maintain the quality of the top of our entering class during
that period, the credentials of the bottom quartile had dropped to a level that
we believed required corrective action.
The immediate impact of downsizing has been a significant increase in the
credentials (especially LSAT score) at the 25th percentile level.
As will be noted later, we believe that improvement of the bottom of our
class will help us in some areas that have been problematic for a College for
the last few years.
In addition to improving our admissions profile, downsizing has enabled
us to implement a number of programmatic improvements.
Our first year sections of approximately 60 in the day and 30 in the
evening provide an environment conducive to learning. As part of the strategic plan, we will increase the number of
our research and writing instructors. Our
first year writing program will therefore be taught in even smaller sections
than before our downsizing. We have
also implemented a new upper class writing requirement that requires every
student to compete a portfolio containing five writing units.
Each student’s faculty advisor is required to review the portfolio and
certify completion of this requirement before graduation.
We were adopt this system because of the improved student faculty ratio
supplied by downsizing. Since upper
class courses will also be smaller, our students will have more and better
skills training experiences. We
believe that we have significantly enriched the academic experience at Toledo as
a result of these curricular reforms made possible, in part, by the reduced
We are also convinced that downsizing
will also improve the employment record of our graduates.
Although our percentage of graduates employed after nine months of
graduation has been high in recent years, the elimination of the bottom of our
entering class should improve the overall quality of employment positions
reported by the class. We do not
anticipate that the lessened enrollment will negatively impact the abundant
employment opportunities that have been historically available to the top of our
class. Employers have responded
positively to our downsizing by forgoing rigid percentage formulas (interviewing
only the top X percent of the class) and instead interviewing by grade point
criteria. We therefore anticipate
that the average and median salaries of our graduates will rise, even if
adjusted for the recent dramatic increase in starting associate salaries.
We also expect that the entering class
reduction will ultimately help our bar passage rate in the state of Ohio.
Although we have done well in bar passage rates in other jurisdictions,
our passage rate in Ohio has fallen as the state has raised the score required
for passage. The College has
implemented a number of new programs and informational sessions to assist third
years in preparing for the examination. However,
our experience indicates that failure on the bar is directly related to law
school GPA and that LSAT score
corresponds to law school GPA. Therefore,
raising the qualifications of the bottom 25th percentile of our
entering class should result in eliminating the graduates who are experiencing
the most difficulty passing the examination.
As we studied bar passage rates among other schools in the state, the
LSAT score of an institution’s lower quartile seemed to correlate directly
with passage rate on the bar. Reducing
the size of the entering class will also help us avoid the need for increased
academic attrition rates at the end of the first year.
If a school keeps placing additional students in academic jeopardy, the
admissions office is usually required to admit larger classes in the succeeding
year. In the market of the
1990’s, more students usually meant less qualified students. This in turn necessitated higher attrition.
We hope that our downsizing will help us avoid this spiral.
Reduced enrollment is
also appealing to state funding agencies and the local bar.
There is no political appeal in the argument that the country does not
have enough lawyers. In fact,
complaints are frequently heard about the quality of law school graduates and
the younger members of the bar. Some
governmental agencies in Ohio have applauded our downsizing as a responsible
reaction to a declining applicant pool and a perceived decline in the quality of
recent graduates. The practicing
bar will frequently encourage downsizing because of its own economic
self-interest in decreasing competition. Fewer
law graduates is therefore a politically popular move and is frequently
applauded in the local media.
We worried that
reducing our enrollment would limit access to the profession by many
underrepresented groups. However,
upon further reflection, we wondered how real the problem of access is
nationally given the reality of fewer applications and an increased number of
seats in law schools (especially if you count unaccredited and provisionally
accredited schools). We reiterated
our commitment to a diverse student body. We
further realized that a smaller class would enable us to provide more academic
assistance to students with difficulty adjusting to the demands of law school.
Further if recruitment and admission initiatives remained constant, the
actual percentage of minority students would increase.
Available scholarship funds would be available to a larger segment of the
We found that,
despite the reduction in the size of the student body, the demands of our
community and non-traditional students, usually focused on our evening program,
could still be met. The decision to
reduce our evening admissions from 50 to 30 was consistent with our belief that
the latter figure was the appropriate annual number of actual part-time students
in a metropolitan area of our size. In
order to reach our old goal of 50, we frequently accepted day applicants into
the evening program to reach the target. This
practice caused numerous dislocations in the evening program.
The reduced class will produce a group of “true” part-time students
and allow us to provide programs specifically geared to their needs.
Our initial concern about the effect of
downsizing on our clinics and student community service projects also appears to
be unwarranted. We engaged in a major renovation of our clinical
structure and offerings. Although
there will probably be fewer students taking a clinic in absolute numbers, we
are convinced that the students enrolled in our clinic will have a much better
clinical experience. We believe
that success of this kind will actually make clinics more appealing to a larger
segment of the student body. Our
student body also continues to be active in a number of service and public
interest projects. We believe that
we will get more dedicated students participating in such activities.
We will hopefully eliminate students who were engaging in such activities
for “resume value” and replace them with individuals who are truly committed
to the project or task at hand. We
also believe that our existing grants and internship opportunities will reach a
broader percentage of the class.
We also realize that a college of law
must be a certain minimum size to maintain the level of curricular excellence
and community involvement that should be expected from a serious academic
institution. The enrollment figure
of 430 is our minimum target. We do not intend to get any smaller. We believe that the projected demographics for 22 year olds,
the vibrant legal employment market and our own efforts to market and improve
the College will significantly raise the number of our applications in the next
few years. If this occurs, we have
decided to employ the rise to improve the overall quality of the entering
class’ credentials rather than return our enrollment to prior levels.
Although we could envision total headcount increasing 10-15% above our
minimum, such a number would represent the maximum growth we could foresee at
II. Convincing the University
strategic plan such as ours cannot be successful without the support of the
University administration. In many
academic settings, the Universities have utilized the law school as a “cash
cow”, with “excess” law income being used to fund other programs at the
University. In recent years, the
income flow generated by the law schools has diminished, given the rising costs
of technology, student scholarships and expensive pedagogical programs (e.g.
skills training and legal writing). Downsizing
clearly decreases the revenue generated by a law school and harms the University
financially. The harm may be in a
reduction of “excess” income or in a budget that is actually running a
deficit. We did not think that
getting into arguments over the actual amounts of net dollars generated by a law
school was a useful endeavor. Such
discussions seem to bog down in an endless series of accounting exchanges
regarding overhead allocation formulas, state subsidy models and similarly
amorphous concepts. We thought it
best to concede that downsizing will clearly cost the University money and needs
to be seen as an investment in the law school.
Certain arguments helped us persuade the University administration that
such an investment was a wise decision.
In a large, public institution such as ours, the College of Law budget
is, in reality, a small portion of the overall University financial picture.
In that context, financial concessions to the law school have less impact
on the University than adjustments in larger colleges could have.
This reality is accentuated if the University can be convinced that
measurable, highly visible improvements in the quality of the law school will
result from the investment in downsizing. We
therefore concluded that our strategic plan should include specific goals that
could be attained in the course of a few years.
In order to convince the University to make the investment in us, we
needed to be willing to be judged. Our
strategic plan provides a benchmark that the University administration will use
to evaluate the success of the College of Law faculty and administration in
2004. Our willingness to supply
such a standard and to verbalize goals that struck all levels of the University
community as unquestioned qualitative improvements was a crucial part of the
final adoption of the strategic plan.
In the University context, law schools have the advantage of always being
more trouble that they are worth. Colleges
of law are the academic equivalent of an NFL quarterback – they get too much
praise when they win and too much blame when they lose. Law school successes are frequently trumpeted in local and
regional media. A regionally or
nationally prominent legal institution can be a magnet for speakers, symposia
and other high profile events. Similarly,
failures or poor performances are highly visible.
In addition, law alumni are disproportionately wealthy, powerful and
vocal. These realities
indicate that a University investment in improving the quality of its law school
is frequently a sensible decision. If
the University is committed to augmenting its academic reputation generally, the
law school may well be the best place to start.
In the process of formulating our
strategic plan, we also realized that we needed to acknowledge our role as part
of the University community. At the
same time we were planning to downsize, the administration was actively and
publicly seeking a large enrollment increase for the entire University.
We strenuously argued that the law school could not directly help the
University in this effort, but the University could seriously harm the law
school. If we were required to
increase our enrollment by 20 percent, the additional 100 students would be a
small drop in the bucket for a University already at approximately 20,000
students. However, the additional
100 students would severely inhibit the law schools efforts to improve. We therefore maintained that the best way to solve both the
University and College of Law problems was to downsize the College while the
College became involved in the University’s efforts to increase overall
enrollment through the establishment of a pre-law major in Law and Social
Thought. We therefore committed as
part of our strategic plan to offer our support to the University in
establishing this new major in the College of Arts and Sciences. If the new program is successful in attracting new students
to the University, we have contributed to overall enrollment growth while
downsizing our individual College.
In the actual negotiations with the University, our major concession was
4 tenure track faculty lines. The
timing for such a concession was ideal because a number of our senior faculty
had decided to take advantage of a University buy-out retirement program. Our
ranks had actually been reduced by more than four as a result of this initiative
and a University hiring freeze. We
therefore had an appropriate occasion to assess the number of full time faculty
needed to service a student population of 430.
The strategic plan concludes that 28 tenure track teachers, five Research
and Writing Instructors and four clinical staff attorneys are sufficient to
achieve our quality goals given a student body of that size.
The salary savings generated by reducing the faculty from 32 to 28 was
perceived by the University as significant.
By making the somewhat extraordinary offer of sacrificing faculty slots,
we convinced the University that we were willing to do our part to create the
quality College that we envisioned. The
strategic plan was therefore perceived as a partnership agreement with the
University rather than a unilateral grab for a greater share of precious
Downsizing may not be appropriate for every school.
Private institutions, especially those that are free standing, may
perceive themselves as too dependent on a tuition based revenue stream to
seriously consider a major enrollment reduction.
However, given the market lessons of the past decade, reducing the size
of the law school population appears to be a sensible alternative for many
schools. The expansion of faculties
and facilities in the application boom of the late 1980’s produced a cost in
student quality when the cyclical nature of the applicant pool turned down in
the 1990’s. As we enter another
demographic upturn in the 22-year old population, law schools should seriously
examine using the projected increase in applications to get better instead of
merely bigger. Our experience
indicates that positive results are possible if law colleges overcome their
traditional reticence to give up some resources and engage in a meaningful
dialogue with University officials on improving the school of law. Although the formulation and implementation of our
strategic plan is too recent to evaluate meaningfully, we remain convinced that
the concepts formulated therein are the most appropriate means to improve our
College given the market realities we face and the limits of our metropolitan