Budget Cuts and the Dubious Future of W&L Law
By Christian von Hassel Like many institutions of legal education across the country, W&L Law still struggles to find its footing as more and more students turn away from careers as attorneys. Not surprisingly, this harmful shift derives from a tougher legal job market, as employers turn away from hiring young (and old) lawyers. Politics Professor Rob Strong notes, “The factors of the traditional model have changed dramatically. Taking out 100k or more of student loans makes dubious economic sense with increasingly few well-paying jobs on the other side.”
W&L Law has endeavored to directly attack this value-of-investment problem plaguing the Law school education. After implementing a number of new initiatives to boost the School’s rapport with employers, the employment statistics appear on the rise. Ten months after graduation, 75 percent of the 2014L class received employment in positions that require or highly recommend a J.D. This statistic positively compares to the former, lower 56.9% for the 2012L class at a similar point after graduation.
Still, as with most law schools across the country, the future remains quite uncertain for W&L Law. Nora Demleitner will step down as Dean of the Law School at the end of this academic year. While the internal motivations behind this switch remain private, Demleitner’s successor – current W&L Law tax professor Brant Hellwig – faces a formidable path ahead. One law student quips, “I went here as an undergrad and it was ranked 26th and I got in and it seemed like a good idea at the time.” The implication behind that student’s ironic statement highlights the troubled status of W&L Law, an institution suddenly presented with both an existential crisis and diminished reputation.
In order to restore some semblance of stability and financial self-sufficiency, Hellwig must hold responsibility for implementing the Strategic Transition Plan recently approved by the Board of Trustees. Among other measures, the Plan outlines the University’s intent to cut the Law School’s student body by about 25 percent, reduce financial aid to more sustainable levels, layoff a number of administrative staff and adjunct professors, and freeze or cut the salaries of the remaining faculty. The University hopes these measures, although costly, will erase the Law School’s budget deficit by the 2018-2019 school year.
If current trends persist, however, their steps might not prove sufficient to reverse the Law School’s inexorable decline. Bloomberg reports that in 2014, the number of applicants to US law schools comprised just 55% of the number who applied in 2004. The number of spots for students in American law schools has also decreased, but by a markedly smaller margin. Those open spots are increasingly filled by lower quality students with lower bar passage rates and worse value propositions for future employers, which in turn contributes to the mounting inability of Law School students confronted by the spectre of unemployment after graduating.
Nonetheless, for top students and especially those wishing to pursue a public interest career, the route might still make sense. Maressa Cuenca, a first-year at W&L Law remarks, “For me, I came to law school because I wanted to help sexual assault victims. I was not even thinking about the job market. But still, even for my friends pursuing a range of legal paths, it seems if you work hard, there are still plenty of ways to succeed.” For idealists and the passionate, the field of Law still holds promise. But for many, Law is no longer as safe a bet as it once was - and for W&L Law, the consequences of this denigration will have a reckoning sooner or later.