Around the time the Great Recession was ending, many legal pundits claimed the party was over for law schools.
Declining enrollment, rising tuition and limited job prospects were seen as the lethal mix that would cripple law schools and even force a number to close. Predictions held that some top universities would shutter their legal education programs within years, but the first law school with an ABA accreditation to close turned out to be Indiana Tech Law School in Fort Wayne. Indiana’s fifth law school, which opened in August 2013 and gained provisional accreditation, is scheduled to close June 30, 2017.
While those who have studied trends in legal education differ on whether Indiana Tech will be one in a string of closures, they agree that the first priority must be the students. The school has a reported total enrollment of 71, and the bulk of those will have to transfer to another law school if they want to complete their J.D. studies.
The closure also will put faculty, administrators and staff out of work and possibly cause them to relocate for new jobs. Also, the university has not indicated what will happen to the three-story, 70,000-square-foot classroom building that houses the law school and includes a courtroom and law library.
Richard Gershon, professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law, knows the work required in starting a J.D. program from his tenure as founding dean of the Charleston School of Law.
Indiana Tech linked the closure to financial concerns, citing $20 million in losses and counting. From that explanation, Gershon said it is clear the administration could not afford to fund the law school any longer without cutting into its support for other degree programs and students.
“It is the right decision (to close),” he said, “but it is not a reason to celebrate.”
Making a new beginning
Second-year students at Indiana Tech Law School will face the hardest choice, as they will have to decide between changing schools and likely having to repeat their middle year, or dropping out altogether and pursuing another career.
“They owe it to their students to go way beyond the norm,” said David Barnhizer, professor emeritus at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
The law school admission process is well underway, so the students in Fort Wayne have to act quickly to choose a program and submit an application. Barnhizer emphasized Indiana Tech should assign a point person to help students gather information from other law schools, identify options and decide what they want to do.
Deans of other regional law schools say they welcome any Indiana Tech student to apply for transfer, but these applications will not be given special consideration. Students must meet the standards and go through the same process the same as any other transfer.
Indiana Tech Law School Dean Charles Cercone said he has been reaching out to other programs in Ohio and Indiana to help students who want to continue their education. Deans at several institutions including Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Valparaiso School of Law, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law and University of Toledo College of Law all confirmed they have been contacted by Cercone.
“I feel bad for the students,” said IU McKinney Dean Andrew Klein. “I do feel for the students who are in that situation.”
Continued upheaval in the market could create another obstacle for Indiana Tech students with low GPAs and LSAT scores. Other schools might now be hesitant to accept a transfer who could negatively impact their bar passage rates, said Brian Tamanaha, professor at Washington University St. Louis School of Law.
As applications fell during the latter part of the recession, law schools beat the predictions of closures by doing the unprecedented, Tamanaha said. They dipped deeper into the applicant pool and admitted marginally qualified students who previously would have been rejected.
Law schools that traditionally enrolled students from the bottom quartile suddenly started competing with more prestigious institutions. Indiana Tech, without the reputation or record of established legal programs, had a very hard sell to make.
Now with the American Bar Association poised to require law schools to post a bar passage rate of 75 percent or higher, admissions staff may take a closer look at applicants.
“The only thing they could have done to mitigate this was not to open,” Tamanaha said of Indiana Tech.
While Toledo Dean D. Benjamin Barros believes the students will find new homes, he worries some might be not accepted into other law schools. If such a situation came about, he speculated the ABA possibly could offer an incentive to an accredited program to take the transfers.
Regardless of whether they transfer, Indiana Tech students still will be responsible for any federal student loans they took. The loan program does have a provision for discharging loans in the event of a closure but, according to the U.S. Department of Education, that applies only when an entire university stops operations and would not extend to the just a law school closing.
For Indiana Tech law school professors, the employment options might be more limited. As Barnhizer noted, law firms are reducing their attorney rolls and law schools are not in a hiring mode.
“My sense is that for law faculty in this day and age, they don’t have anywhere to go,” Barnhizer said. He added the university should help soften the blow by offering the law school faculty a severance equal to, at least, half a year’s salary.
Two faculty members have hired an attorney and are considering taking legal action against the university. Barnhizer and Gershon have different opinions about potential success of a lawsuit.
Gershon is not sure that the teachers would be able to gain much sympathy in court. An argument that the professors should get a remedy because the program is suddenly closing could be difficult to make to a jury that would probably include people who were laid off when a local employer shutdown.
Conversely, Barnhizer said the university’s statements may provide the faculty with grounds to sue. If the administration made explicit promises of continued commitment to the law school, that would be actionable.
Other law schools might be watching the unprecedented closure in Fort Wayne to see how Indiana Tech navigates to its end and possibly learn what to avoid. Since the law school was so young, neither Gershon nor Tamanaha believes its closure has any larger significance.
“It’s just like any business,” Gershon said. “Sometimes if you can’t pay the bills and nobody else will pay the bills for long, then you’re going to have to shut down.”•