'In 3 years, a top law school will close'

Yale Law School graduationAssociated PressYale Law School, whose graduates are pictured here, will probably not be one of the top schools that closes.

A well-respected Emory University law professor shook up the world of academia on Monday by making a startling prediction: “In three years, a top law school will close.”

The op-ed by Dorothy A. Brown in the Washington Post on the “death spiral” facing law schools
touched a nerve. And she joked in an interview with Business Insider that if she didn’t have tenure at Emory, she’d probably be revising her resume in the wake of its publication.

In the next three years, Brown predicts that a law school in the top 20 or even top 50 of the US News & World report ranking may end up shutting down due to declining enrollment.

“Most people at top 50 law schools think this is a fourth-tier or a third-tier problem, and I think that misses the mark,” said Brown, who’s vice provost and professor of law at Emory.

It’s no secret that law schools have been in trouble since the recession pummelled the legal industry. Much of the bad press, however, has focused on small law schools that aren’t tied to universities and don’t make US News & World Report’s coveted law school ranking.

But Brown argues that the future of many of the America’s top law schools is also uncertain because declining enrollment forces schools to offer attractive financial aid packages to attract the best students. That hurts their bottom line.

“We are literally chasing after the same potential students,” said Brown. “And that pool is dwindling.”

George Washington Law SchoolFacebook/The George Washington University Law SchoolGeorge Washington Law, pictured here, spends some money on funding jobs for its graduates.

For the fall of 2014, law school enrollment plummeted to levels not seen since 1973, when there were 53 fewer law schools, the American Bar Association said in December. In January, law school application numbers were down 8.5% compared to the same time in 2014,the Wall Street Journal reported.

The financial crisis for law schools is exacerbated because they often fund temporary post-graduate positions for their alumni to boost employment statistics, Brown says. (George Washington University, for example, funds a “Pathways to Practice” program that places new grads in fellowships so they can get some experience.)

Law schools — which used to be cash cows for the school — simply can’t raise tuition high enough to keep pace with the increased aid packages and post-graduation job stipends they’re offering students, Brown argues.

Big universities may end up getting rid of their law schools if other graduate programs bring in more money and have higher US News rankings — especially since the “decreased appetite” for a law school education is likely to continue, Brown predicts. Many smart young people simply don’t think of law school as a default option anymore.

“This isn’t temporary,” she said. “We’re not going to go back to the way it was.”

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