Law School Deans, Law Schools, Rankings, U.S. News

The Hastings Gambit

This week, the law school press has been focused on the UC Hastings College of Law. Hastings Law Dean Frank Wu announced that his school would be voluntarily reducing its enrollment by 20 percent over the next three years.

The mainstream press has noticed, too. The Wall Street Journal did an article about Wu’s attempt to “reboot” legal education, and the Dean gave a long interview to USA Today.

Hastings isn’t the first law school to reduce enrollment, but the school’s move is more significant because of the rhetoric Dean Wu is putting behind it. Wu is making the philosophical case against huge law school class sizes in this challenging job market.

But is it all about changing the nature of legal education, or is Hastings being pushed into these moves by the familiar forces of disappointing employment statistics, and a desire to climb up the U.S. News rankings? Critics have said that the school isn’t “voluntarily” doing anything.

Then again, if Hastings is doing something objectively good for prospective students, maybe it doesn’t even matter how the administration came to the decision….

Frank Wu

First let’s deal with the blowback Hastings has been facing on Twitter (and in my inbox). There are people who think Hastings is reducing its enrollment because it can’t fill its seats.

The problem with that highly cynical argument is that there is just no evidence that Hastings Law has or will experience a significant drop in applications. From the USA Today piece:

It’s not that no one wants to go to Hastings — the freestanding law college in San Francisco rejects three-quarters of its applicants.

Applications may be down generally, but Hastings is the 44th ranked law school in the country according to U.S. News. Schools of that caliber fill their seats. There is just no evidence the prospective law students are remotely aware enough to consistently turn down admission to a top 50 law school.

Still others point out that at the very least, Hastings administrators have an up close and personal view of the perils of large law school class sizes in this market. Dean Wu is maybe just now hearing the wails and moans coming from his current 3L class. From a tipster:

[T]he school has no plans to reduce tuition. Naturally it is the students who bear any and all risks associated with the economy at large and those unique risks of being a captive audience to a monopolized lending market that moves in lockstep with institutional demands for more loot. Austerity, if it comes at all, will only be embraced with disingenuous fronts about “voluntary” reductions in class size after reality has force it upon the pile.

I’m a 3L and can count on two hands how many classmates have job offers presently. The rest of us have no real prospects.

Again note: I try to reach people when they are 0Ls before they commit to this dread reality. But just like there is little a current 3L can do to improve his or her lot, there is little that Dean Wu can do to reduce tuition given California’s ongoing budget mess. The entire UC system is getting squeezed, and law school deans at public universities don’t have a lot of control over how much it costs to go to their schools. This isn’t Stanford Law where tuition gets raised just because it can.

Cutting enrollment is one of the only ways Hastings can both decrease the amount of funds it is taking from law students (writ large), and address the apparently high instance of 3L unemployment. The attempt comes way too late for those in the class of 2012 (or 2013, or 2014, most likely), but it seems to me that it’s better to start somewhere.

And it seems like the move will help when the U.S. News people come calling. In fact, there are many people who are saying that the only reason Hastings is doing this is to help its U.S. News rank. Smaller law schools do better in the rankings, especially smaller ones that have all the resources of a larger school.

We asked a spokesperson for Hastings whether the school was taking a shot at “gaming” the rankings. Dean Wu directed us to his online response to a student town hall. In pertinent part:

UC Hastings takes U.S. News & World Report rankings seriously and intends to do everything we can to improve ours, and we’ve shown our ability to analyze the statistics and then take action; however, we will do only what is academically beneficial and ethical. All changes being made at UC Hastings are aimed at adapting for the betterment of the legal education provided, student experience, and alumni career prospects. Follow are three examples (also included in the Spring Update:

1. Many of our Deans are also faculty who teach a part-time load. Counting them as faculty instead of Deans when we report our head-count to US News & World Report is both honest and beneficial to our ranking.

2. Emphasizing undergraduate GPA in admissions.

3. Doing a better job of communicating UC Hastings’ vision and value to members of the bench, bar, and throughout the academic community will enhance job career prospects for graduates and help the school to compete in attracting prospective students. This “reputation” is also a major factor in the rankings.

It’s all well and good to scream about U.S. News’s undue influence over legal education when it leads to perverse incentives for law schools. Keeping faculty salaries high and the law library large are things that U.S. News rewards, regardless of their effect on the quality of legal education received by students.

But sometimes U.S. News points a law school in the right direction, as we’ve pointed out before. Here, if the attempt to do better in the rankings leads to smaller class sizes and higher standards for entry, what is wrong with that?

Almost every day, I scream about how there need to be fewer law schools, and the people who go to law school need to be much better prepared for what’s about to happen. It seems to me that Hastings is starting the process of providing a more useful service to its students.

I’d emphasize “starting,” because hopefully this is just the beginning for Hastings. Hopefully Dean Wu will back up this educational “reboot” with an aggressive approach to graduate employment transparency that gets to students before they show up on campus. Hopefully the school will be reorganizing what money it does take in to put a renewed emphasis on career services instead of whoever is teaching the fourth section of M&A this fall. If you can’t significantly reduce tuition, you should at least be doing everything you can to make sure those who do show up get their money’s worth. This could be Hastings’s way of getting into a position where it can make that happen.

It’s got to start somewhere. Half of the law schools in the country aren’t going to close. Students who can’t break 140 on the LSAT aren’t going to find something better to do. The ABA is not going to take its responsibility for regulating law schools seriously. And the federal government is not going to cut off the spigot of loan dollars for education.

So I think all we can do is embrace Hastings and Dean Wu, and hope that other conscientious law school deans start doing what they can to reform legal education into something that is of real economic value to the students who go to law school.

In that context, decreasing enrollment by 20 percent seems like a good start.

Prestigious law school reduces admissions, marks new trend [USA Today]
Hastings Law School Dean Wants to ‘Reboot’ Legal Education [Wall Street Journal]

Earlier: Walk With Me
A Trend in the Making: Shrinking Law Schools?

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