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Valpo Law seeks new way forward amid ‘severe financial challenges’

November 29, 2017
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Valparaiso University Law School will admit no first-year students in 2018. (IL file photo)

With a 138-year history, Valparaiso Law School is not the only legal education institution getting crushed by declining enrollment and falling revenue, but it is likely the oldest to publicly announce its future is uncertain.

Valparaiso University released a statement Nov. 16 that the law school was facing “severe financial challenges” and would be exploring options for continued operations including affiliating with another law school or relocating to another geographic market. Although the university was adamant that the J.D. program was not closing, the law school will not admit students for the fall of 2018.

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University President Mark Heckler is not sure what will happen. He said the law school will be “exploring the full range of possibilities.” The next steps as well as the path forward will flow from that.

The university board of directors had been taking a closer look at its legal education program since the American Bar Association censured the law school in October 2016, according to Heckler. Valparaiso Law School was sanctioned for admitting students who were considered unlikely to complete their J.D. degree or pass the bar exam.

In the summer of 2017, Heckler convened a task force of advisers to review different aspects of the law school. The task force was comprised of members from the board of directors and the community as well as alumni. Eugene Schoon, a 1980 Valpo Law grad and a partner at Sidley Austin in Chicago, one of the nation’s largest firms, led one of the groups. It examined the legal education offered at the school and possibilities for expanding or changing the curriculum.

His committee recommended the law school re-establish its connection to the Lutheran faith by focusing recruitment efforts on Lutheran colleges and universities. Also, the group highlighted the potential for developing joint degree programs between the law school and the college of engineering, college of nursing and health professions and the department of social work.

Schoon believes the board of directors took the findings of his committee very seriously. He speculated the deciding factor may have been money. The board members may have realized that continuing to invest in the law school would take funds from other programs, so to keep the entire university financially viable, they have to look at alternatives.

He is not optimistic. Describing the decision to suspend admissions for 2018 as the first step to closure, Schoon said, “I’m convinced there’s not going to be an institution known as Valparaiso Law School going forward.”

Heckler said was not prepared to answer specific questions about the law school’s financial situation, and he could not predict how much time will be needed to determine the law school’s future.

However, he maintained the university will be working closely with the ABA, which accredits the law school, and is committed to enabling the students currently enrolled to finish their J.D. degrees at Valparaiso. School officials will be meeting with each student, individually, to assess their options, whether staying or transferring, and develop a plan that best suits them.

“There is no change in terms of our commitment to fulfill our obligations to the students that are here,” Heckler said.

Preserving Valpo’s ethos

Prior to the public announcement, the board of directors had been engaged in a long process to determine what to do with the law school, Heckler said. The body finally decided to look at alternatives after a “long, careful and thoughtful conversation.”

The primary focus in finding a university or law school to affiliate with will be to try to “preserve the intellectual knowledge and ethos” of the law school, the university president said. That ethos spans the hands-on experiential learning opportunities in the law school clinics and the legal writing program to also include the culture of caring and sense of calling that many Valparaiso law students have.

Schoon concurred that Valparaiso is unique.

He arrived at Valparaiso Law School with a master’s in history and little understanding about what being a lawyer would entail. Choosing the northwest Indiana school because of its values in faith, he found the faculty really cared for the students, giving them personal attention and working to help them succeed.

“Valparaiso was such a great place for people like me because I had no background in the law,” Schoon said. “Valparaiso has always been a school of opportunity for first-generation lawyers. The school took people who didn’t come from the most advantageous backgrounds and gave them a pathway into the profession.”

Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik described Valparaiso Law School as providing a quality legal education and producing many smart, talented lawyers. Like Schoon, she graduated from the law school in 1980 and continues her ties to the institution by being an active alumna and judging moot court competitions among the students.

“Valpo has just done a really good job of finding students who have a mission to serve,” Vaidik said. “Not that the other law schools don’t, but that was (Valpo’s) special niche.”

Even so, like other law schools around the country, Valparaiso has had difficulty navigating the post-recession terrain. A shrinking job market for attorneys coupled with high student loan debt has deterred many college graduates, especially those with strong academic credentials, from pursuing a J.D. degree. The number taking the LSAT dropped by slightly more than 62,000 in the last seven years, according to statistics from the Law School Admission Council.

As a result, law schools have been fiercely competing for a smaller pool of applicants filled with less-qualified students.

Valparaiso Law School welcomed a class of 208 students in the fall of 2013 with a median LSAT of 143, a score believed to indicate the individual will have trouble passing the bar exam. By 2016, the class size had fallen to 103 and the median LSAT had bumped up to 147. In 2017, under the cloud of the ABA censure, the law school admitted just 28 students, but they carried a median LSAT of 151.

Heckler noted the extreme competition among law schools, particularly those not in the top tier, to recruit and enroll academically sound students. Luring the best means offering more scholarship money, which increases the financial pressure on the schools.

The number of students taking the LSAT has been climbing in the past two years. In addition, as reported by National Association for Law Placement, the employment rate for 2016 law school graduates edged up to 87.5 percent from 86.7 percent for the class of 2015.

Retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard noted the improvement is not likely ease the stress on law schools. Shepard led the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, commissioned in 2012, which highlighted the difficulties facing law schools and called for allowing more experimentation and innovation.

“It’s a tough time to be a law school dean,” Shepard said. “I think there’s wide belief that the number of schools in genuine distress is going to continue to grow.”

Compatible values and compromises

Valparaiso Law School dean Andrea Lyon began her tenure in July 2014. At a meet-and-greet with alumni in Indianapolis shortly after settling into her new position, she talked excitedly about the innovative curriculum being rolled out at the law school and her plans to keep the focus on training people to be lawyers.

Lyon replaced Jay Conison. He had already been planning to step down as dean but left earlier than expected to lead the Charlotte School of Law. That school, now closed, struggled to graduate students who could pass the bar, which caused the U.S. Department of Education to stop providing students with loans and the ABA to put the school on probation.

Shepard declined to draw a relationship between Conison and Valparaiso’s current troubles.

“I think that the dramatic national trend that has affected everybody can’t be laid at the doorstep of a single person,” he said. “That’s borderline irrational.”

Shepard is not ready to write off Valparaiso Law School. The legacy of the institution, even if it merges with another school, could endure because of the commitment of people who are working to find a way forward.

“I still think there’s a chance the university and people in the law school can continue to educate more lawyers as they have over the 138 years,” Shepard said. “It’s not easy, but there are legitimate options that can work. In my own heart, I’m not going to give up on their prospects yet.”

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Marie Failinger, graduate of Valparaiso Law School in 1976, knows about the importance and difficulty of retaining a school’s legacy during a merger. She was interim dean of Hamline University School of Law as it planned its merger with neighboring William Mitchell College of Law. Based on that experience, she confirmed Heckler’s assessment that any affiliation must be based on compatible values and similar missions.

“The moral of the story is it will be difficult even in the best scenario,” Failinger said of merging.

The two law schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, merged in 2015 to form Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Even though they were in the same location and shared a similar approach to legal education, combining still caused consternation among the students and concerns from some alumni. Joining together required a lot of sessions listening to the students and, behind the scenes, compromising to work through many complexities.

But, she credits the merger with giving the new school the chance to rethink its curriculum and be creative. Mitchell Hamline has since developed a hybrid program consisting of on-campus and online classes, and a part-time weekend program.

Valparaiso needs to find a partner that recognizes the school’s strengths and is willing to work with the university’s board of directors, Failinger said. Also, the faculty has to approve and be comfortable with having to change how they do things.

Even as she discusses Valparaiso’s future, Failinger wants her alma mater to survive. Like Schoon, she enrolled in Valparaiso after quickly deciding to go to law school. She found the faculty to be very invested in the students and excellent at preparing people for practice.

“I just hope Valparaiso finds a way to continue a presence in the law,” Failinger said, “because I think it’s such an important part of the Lutheran tradition to serve the law.”•

Olivia Covington contributed to this article.

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