Whittier Law School to close after it fails to find buyer

Story updated on April 21:

Whittier College's board of trustees announced on April 19 that Whittier Law School will not accept a law class for Fall 2017 and that it will close after current students graduate. If it closes, it will be the first ABA-accredited law school to do so. But some law faculty are hoping to fight the action. 

The law school issued its own statement saying it was “obviously devastated” by the board’s decision.

“For more than 50 years, we have provided a high quality education to students of diverse backgrounds and abilities — students who might not otherwise have been able to receive a legal education and who are now serving justice and enterprise around the world,” the law school said. “Sadly, our sponsoring institution opted to abandon the Law School rather than provide the time and resources needed to finish paving the path to ongoing viability and success. We believe this action was unwise, unwarranted, and unfounded.”

Some of the schools' law professors filed a temporary restraining order prior to the board's announcement in hopes to stop it, but were denied on First Amendment grounds. The professors still hope to pursue legal action. 

Whittier College completed a sale-leaseback of the law school’s Costa Mesa campus for $35 million in February, the Orange County Business Journal reported. The law professors said the university had promised to use the profit from that sale, estimated at $14 million, to support the law school, which has been losing money. The law school is in Costa Mesa, Calif., while Whittier College is in Whittier, Calif.

The board of trustees said it had researched ways to keep the law school open, including redirecting resources, improving student outcomes, and selling the school, but found no solution. The board began investigating alternatives in 2015, after the school reported dismal bar pass rates and employment outcomes, despite lower enrollment.

Whittier's enrollment dropped from 700 in 2010 to less than 450. During the same time period, its median LSAT dropped from 152 to 146. Its bar passage rate dropped to 38.1 percent for the class of 2015, the most recent data available. It was as high as 69 percent in 2012.

The college formed a law school and college task force in July 2016, both tasked with considering whether discontinuing the law school would be appropriate. The law school taks force submitted its report in September, finding that student qualifications and outcomes were improving and that future prospects were good, whereas closing the law school would be highly detrimental to the college. The other committee found much reason to continue the law school. 

For much of the past year, the board had been engaged in negotiations with an entity to acquire the building and take over the law school. The sale of the buidling closed in March, however, in Mid-April the entity decided not to take over operation of the law school. The board met one week later and nearly unanimously, voted to close the law school.

Law students expressed their anger with the decision at a meeting with college leadership on April 19, which was posted online. Sharon Herzberger, president of Whittier College, told students that the school would not close until they completed their education. However, students were concerned for their careers and upset that it did not appear the board took into account recent efforts by the school to improve bar passage rates. 

In response to a question as to why the college announced the decision now as opposed to after law school finals in a few weeks, Herzberger said the board felt it needed to notify applicants.  Herzberger said she did not have answers to most questions about transition, but would get them answered in the next few weeks. 

Most institutions file for a "teach out" with the Department of Education when they plan to close. A teach out is “a written course of action a school that is closing will take to ensure its students are treated fairly with regard to finishing their programs of study.” This typically allows the institution to begin cutting expenses without running the risk of losing federal loan options. It also ensures a quality program for the remaining students. Whittier will also need approval for the teach out with the American Bar Assoctiation, which accredits law schools. 

Law schools have been under intense financial pressure related to a drop in applications. But Whittier is the first ABA-approved school to close. Indiana Tech Law School, in Fort Wayne, announced it will close in June. But it is only provisionally accredited by the ABA. 

Other law schools have chosen different paths. Hamline University and William Mitchell College of Law merged in 2015. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, in Lansing, Mich., closed its Ann Arbor campus. Charlotte Law School in North Carolina suspended admission of new students after the ABA placed it on probation in November. But it still has not announced whether it will close or not.

Whittier Law School was founded in 1966 and received ABA approval in 1978. The law school moved from Los Angeles to Costa Mesa in 1997.  

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