Independent law schools teetering on the brink
Few people recall that my undergraduate alma mater, Furman University in South Carolina, once had a law school. In the depths of the Great Depression, Furman closed its law school in 1932. A North Carolina school that was well-funded by a tobacco magnate, bought the library of Furman’s law school. It was rolled into Duke University Law School, which is now rated number 11 among U.S. law schools.
In the past two decades a boom in enrollments led to a glut in the law school market. Some of this was fueled by easy availability of government-guaranteed student loans.
Moving from boom to bust, the Great Recession roughly ten years ago brought about a decrease in law school applications and enrollments. The top law schools continued to fill up with well qualified applicants. Admission to lesser law schools became less competitive, opening opportunities for many students who might not have had stellar undergraduate records but were capable of becoming competent lawyers.
But independent law schools at the bottom on the rankings have been struggling to keep their doors open. Those include the Charlotte (NC) Law School, Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan, Indiana Tech Law School, Whittier Law School in California, have announced closures. William M. Mitchell and Hamline University Law School, both in St. Paul, MN, have merged.
Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana has been teetering on the brink, and may move to Middle Tennessee State University. My lawyer friends in Tennessee have expressed great skepticism about the viability of a law school in Murfreesboro. There are three law schools right up the road in Nashville (Vanderbilt, Belmont and Nashville law schools), plus the University of Tennessee Law School in Knoxville and the University of Memphis Law School in the city of that name.
When Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School announced opening of a branch, Savannah Law School, back when I was president of the State Bar of Georgia, I was skeptical of there being enough demand to make it viable. Now that law school’s property has been sold. Students have the option of continuing at John Marshall’s Atlanta campus, or maybe something else. There have been unconfirmed rumors that some university might acquire it, but so far nothing has been confirmed. Students have filed a class action against John Marshall Law School over the closing.
I don’t want to discourage anyone who has a passion for becoming a lawyer from doing so. There are certainly great lawyers and judges who graduated from proprietary night law schools, with or without ABA accreditation. But if one does not have a prominent relative eager to bring him or her into an established practice, and the only option for law school admission is one that is on the brink of extinction, it might be good to consider another career choice.
Ken Shigley was an Assistant District Attorney in Paulding County in the last 1970’s. he is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the State Bar’s Tort & Insurance Practice Section, past chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute, past chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section, and a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (Thomson Reuters West, 2010-2018). His law practice is focused on catastrophic injury and wrongful death including those arising from auto accidents, commercial trucking accidents and those involving brain, neck, back, spinal cord, amputation and burn injuries.