Mounting Challenges for Law Schools

April 14, 2020

Valparaiso University Law School is no longer accepting applicants. This number is no longer accepting voicemail.” That’s the recording currently greeting callers to the Admissions Office of Valparaiso University, a private institution in northwest Indiana. The law school is shuttering after nearly a century-and-a-half due to falling enrollments and the inability to interest other institutions in taking them on in a transfer.

Valparaiso is not alone. The law-school boom that blazed from the 1980s right up through 2010 slid into a hard and sudden decline as a glut of Great Recession graduates started competing for dwindling positions. This, along with law schools' hefty three-year time commitment, steep tuition increases, outdated curriculum, and the field’s failure to adapt to dramatic technological changes in the marketplace, have contributed to a precipitous one-third drop in enrollments to lows not seen since the 1970s, when there were far fewer law schools.

“Law schools used to be a so-called cash cow for universities, “ says Barry Currier to ABA Journal. The then-managing director of accreditation and legal education for the American Bar Association (ABA) notes that while that may or may not have really been true, “at least they broke even or slightly better. Now law schools are having to be subsidized by their universities, and that makes them less attractive [as potential merger prospects] than they might have been.”

The pressure to survive has pushed law schools in every tier to make drastic changes, from offering large, often unsustainable tuition discounts, to deep cuts to faculty and the creation of new law-related programming like executive JDs, masters of law (LLMs) and online law degrees (JDIs). Additionally, the dwindling applicant pool has some schools fighting over top applicants in order to safeguard their rankings and reputations--while others are forced to relax their admission standards in order to keep the doors open.

Relaxed admissions standards aren’t necessarily a bad thing, though applicants and institutions should both be conscious of the related perils and benefits. For example, a well-prepared applicant with his/her sights set on a higher-tier school may well be able to anticipate a more competitive financial aid package than in years past. On the other hand, unprepared or already-struggling students may be setting themselves up for years of sky-high loan payments and little chance of passing the bar exam (much less landing a lucrative post-graduation placement). It’s this lattermost population that demands law schools adjust their curriculum and support structures in order to not just protect their bar-pass average (so tied to reputation and rankings), but also to deliver an ethical, meaningful, and marketable education.

One law school that has made leaps in its curriculum, program offerings, and bar pass percentage is the University of Dayton School of Law. When Andrew Strauss became dean in 2015, only 70% of UD Law grads taking the Ohio bar exam for the first time passed. By 2019, that percentage had increased dramatically to 89%. And that statistic becomes even more impressive when considered alongside Ohio's statewide pass rate of 75%. The HAI team talked with Dean Strauss to find out more about the changes he and his team made to improve the preparedness of their law school graduates.

“Of course, we are pleased with the big jump in our pass rate,” Strauss told HAI in a recent interview. “That’s because it’s a direct reflection of the hard work we’ve done to adapt our methods and curriculum for a new generation of students—as well as to the rapidly evolving legal field.” But Strauss says that there’s no room for complacency in today’s ultra-competitive field. “We’re staying laser-focused on our students and their changing needs. That’s why we’re considering additional interventions such as the use of advanced analytics. Now that we’ve made these gains, we’re only inspired to go higher.”

One such type of advanced analytics that can help law schools improve outcomes is multivariate statistical modeling. With multivariate statistical modeling, also called predictive modeling, past behavior (data) is used to create an algorithm that can be used to predict future outcomes. For example, a multivariate regression equation can identify, with great accuracy, the students who are most likely to struggle passing the bar exam. In fact, a well-crafted model can predict this even at the point of admission. Armed with this knowledge, a law school can quickly become more efficient in who they admit and how and where they direct student support resources, ultimately resulting in higher bar pass rates and improved post-graduate career success.

Another application of advanced analytics that can be leveraged by law schools is predictive yield modeling. These models are built on historical admit and enroll data and are used to predict future enrollment, class composition, and revenue outcomes. They are particularly useful in goal setting, anticipating enrollments before students deposit, and mathematically projecting what effect different financial aid strategies or admissions practices would have on the metrics of the incoming class. These techniques have been widely applied to traditional undergraduate populations, and many law schools are now utilizing the same methodology in order to become as efficient and effective as possible when determining who to admit and how to allocate limited resources.

We have partnered with law schools to shape enrollment outcomes and improve bar passage through advanced analytics. To learn more about our work in this space, visit our law school solutions page.

To learn more about our work in higher education in general, visit our higher ed solutions page.