Smaller class sizes cause faculty buyout offers at Valpo Law

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In an announcement made Feb. 26, Valparaiso University Law School added itself to the list of law schools shedding faculty in the face of declining enrollment.

The northwest Indiana law school, founded in 1879, has offered buyouts to the 27 faculty members who are either tenured or have multi-year contracts. Dean Andrea Lyon declined to share the terms of the buyout offers and did not have a set number of professorships that would be cut. Instead, she said the law school has a budget target, but she was not at liberty to provide the details.

Lyon Lyon

“We have to get smaller, like most law schools,” Lyon said, acknowledging that downturn in the legal market that has led to fewer jobs and law school applicants.

“We have to right-size the faculty to respond to that.”

Law school layoffs and closures have been predicted for the past couple of years. Applications across the country have been dropping since reaching 87,900 in the fall of 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. When applications dipped below 60,000 for the first time in 30 years in 2013, William Henderson, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law who has done extensive research on the changes in the legal profession, predicted “massive layoffs in law schools.”

Among the law schools that have offered faulty buyouts are Vermont Law School, Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center, New England Law, SUNY-Buffalo Law School, University of Denver Sturm College of Law and Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

No other Indiana law school has announced buyouts or layoffs, but Indiana Tech Law School did waive tuition for all students during the 2015-2016 school year.

The Valparaiso Law School pointed to the post-recession slump in applications and enrollment numbers which are causing “a diverse mix of financial challenges.”

“To put the Law School and our students in the best position to succeed, we are taking steps to meet the challenges facing legal education,” the school said in a statement, adding that “based on thorough due diligence” the school made the “difficult but necessary decision” to allow faculty members to request a buyout of their contracts.

“The purpose is to align the size of the faculty with the expected future law school enrollment,” the statement continued. “Valparaiso University and its board are fully committed to the future of the law school and are taking this step to ensure its future success.”

‘Butts in the seats’

Kyle McEntee, executive director and co-founder of Law School Transparency, disputed Valparaiso Law School’s explanation. LST was founded in 2009 and analyzes enrollment and graduation data of individual law schools with the goal of promoting reform in legal education.

The trouble is of Valparaiso Law School’s own making, he said. “The truth is the school got too big, too fast and as it has expanded, the value proposition for students is not there.”

The school’s enrollment peaked in 2011 with 218 new students. However, McEntee said class members had “extraordinarily weak indicators” that they could successfully complete their studies and pass the bar exam.

The class that entered in 2011 had a median LSAT score of 149 and a median GPA of 3.19. When the graduates took bar exams in 2014, the composite first-time average passage rate for the February and July tests was 62.1 percent, according to data from LST. Comparatively, the class that entered in 2010 had a median LSAT score and GPA of 150 and 3.31, respectively. That class logged a composite first-time average bar passage rate of 76 percent.

McEntee pointed to the differences between the incoming classes in 2012 and 2013 as a hint to the law school’s strategy. Valparaiso Law School increased the entering class size from 163 in 2012 to 208 in 2013, but the median GPA dropped from 3.16 to 3.00 and the median LSAT fell from 149 to 143.

Looking at the 2013 stats, McEntee said Valparaiso Law School made a “clear bargain” to “get butts in the seats.”

In 2015, 130 students entered the law school, down from 174 students the prior year. The median GPA of the current 1L students was 2.93 and they had a median LSAT score of 145.

David Hollenbeck, a 1974 alumnus of the law school and an adjunct professor since 1985, said he has not seen a decline in the quality of students. The attorney at Blachly Tabor Bozik & Hartman LLC in Valparaiso teaches classes on local government law, municipal finance law and workers’ compensation to third-year students.

“They are bright, young educated people who can’t wait to get done with their third year so they can start practicing law,” Hollenbeck said.

His firm often brings in Valparaiso law students to serve as law clerks and hires many of the school’s graduates. Valparaiso “produces damn good lawyers,” he said.

Smaller model

Hollenbeck said he was not surprised that the law school had to consolidate. The drop in people taking the LSAT and the smaller enrollment planted in the back of his mind the possibility that the faculty would be downsized. However, he quickly added, the reduction is impacting faculty members he admires, respects and tries to emulate in his own teaching.

The faculty and the ability to interact with them attracted attorney Nathan Vis to attend Valparaiso Law School. Law schools throughout the country study the same books and case law, he said, but Valparaiso stood apart because students could pop into professors’ offices or continue conversations after class and benefit from the faculty’s knowledge and experience.

Vis, an associate at Blachly Tabor Bozik & Hartman LLC, graduated from Valparaiso Law School in 2010. He, too, was not surprised by the school’s decision to shrink, but he noted there are some very highly qualified faculty members whom he would hate to see let go.

The Indiana Lawyer attempted to contact some faculty members but none returned messages.

According to Lyon, Valparaiso Law School will retain its focus on diversity regarding race, age and other factors, and will continue evaluating prospective students based on a holistic approach, looking at factors beyond LSAT scores.“That’s not going to change,” she said, “but we also have to recognize the market is what it is. We really respect and honor the faculty that has been here. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Looming on the horizon is the likelihood the American Bar Association will tighten the law school standards for attrition and bar passage rates, McEntee said. Law schools that have a high number of students dropping out and a low number of graduates passing the bar exam could lose their accreditation.

McEntee speculated Valparaiso Law School is positioning itself to continue to meet the ABA requirements by becoming smaller. Even with the downsizing, McEntee believes it will be able to attract qualified faculty if the school shows it is building something new.

“I look at it as an opportunity for the school to do something different,” he said.•

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