Law Professors, Law School Deans, Law Schools, Layoffs, New Jersey

Law School Rightsizing: This Is How You Do It

This law school has a healthy approach to slimming down.

Layoffs continue to march through law firms. We reported yet another layoff story earlier today.

But now we have some happy news to share, regarding potential layoffs that were averted. A law school that was contemplating junior-faculty layoffs fortunately won’t have to go through with the cuts it had been contemplating.

Which law school achieved this feat? And what lessons might it have to offer to other law schools that are attempting to rightsize themselves in this challenging environment for legal education?

Over the summer, we broke the story of Seton Hall University School of Law issuing notices of termination to all of its junior faculty. This news caused some alarm in legal academia, even though we noted that “the notices could ultimately be rescinded — and the administration hopes to be able to rescind them, provided it can find the needed savings elsewhere within its budget.”

And that’s exactly what ended up happening. Last week, Seton Hall University rescinded the notices of termination delivered to the law school’s tenure-track faculty back in June. The school said the move was made possible as a result of additional faculty retirements and an agreement on budget restructuring. The faculty and dean have formed a Budget Working Group and will deliver a comprehensive plan for restructuring later this fall.

The university’s provost and executive vice president, Dr. Larry Robinson, stated, “I applaud the commitment of the administration and faculty to ensuring the continued excellence of our outstanding Law School. Their efforts will enhance its reputation considerably in the years ahead.” Dean Patrick E. Hobbs added, “I was confident when the notices first went out that together we could find a way to preserve and protect our future without diminishing the quality of our institution or the education and opportunities we afford our students.”

How did Seton Hall avert layoffs? Word on the street is that it did so by finding enough senior faculty to either retire or move into a quasi-retirement, in which they keep their offices, continue to teach (at a reduced level), and continued to draw a paycheck (at a reduced level). Much remains unchanged when a professor enters this state, but the savings that can be realized from transitioning a senior tenured professor to a more flexible arrangement are substantial. We understand that the school will have reached deals with about a dozen or so faculty members when all is said and done.

The school hopes to be “rightsized” by the 2017 academic year. This seems like a reasonable transition period. As I previously observed, regarding another law school’s response to the current environment of falling enrollment, applications, and tuition revenues, “During the long boom period for the legal profession, law schools got fat. Is it fair to force them to act like thin people overnight? There’s no gastric bypass available for law schools. Let them get thinner gradually, in a way that will minimize disruption in the lives of faculty, staff, and their families.”

It’s not easy to get tenured law professors to give up their perches. And it might not have happened without the pressure of the termination notices, which essentially told senior faculty, “Your continuing to stay on, even though you have more than enough in financial resources to retire, could result in your younger colleagues losing their jobs.” Thankfully some Seton Hall senior faculty stepped up to the plate. They should be thanked for their willingness to sacrifice their own financial interest for the greater good of the institution.

(For more on the difficulty of getting senior faculty to leave their posts and the limited tools available to deans to encourage attrition, check out the prologue to Failing Law Schools (affiliate link), Professor Brian Tamanaha’s excellent analysis of legal education and how it needs to be fixed.)

Congratulations to Seton Hall Law School — and to its tenure-track faculty — on this excellent news. And good luck to all the law schools are that are trying to remake themselves responsibly to serve their students and the profession in these challenging times.

Earlier: A Law School’s Possible Purge Of Its Junior Faculty Ranks
A Law School Dean’s Painful Decision
Nationwide Layoff Watch: Heads Continue To Roll In Biglaw

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