Law School Dropouts

Decisions by University of Delaware and other colleges to scrap law school plans highlight the difficulty of recouping high start-up costs.
May 11, 2011

After four months of feasibility studies and business plans, administrators at the University of Delaware announced Tuesday that they would not move ahead with plans to build a law school -- a rare step backward at a time when colleges are constantly developing new initiatives, campuses, and programs, and especially law schools.

Delaware is not alone in its decision. After a large number of universities opened law schools in the mid-to-late 2000s, a number of campuses have scrapped law school plans in the past two years, citing a tough fund-raising environment, high start-up costs, and less demand among potential students. While the decisions by a handful of universities won't change the law school market overnight, they challenge the conventional wisdom that law schools are a relatively easy, profitable undertaking for universities.

"The more you look at it, the less it looks like an easily replicable formula," said Charles Cannon, assistant dean of development and external affairs for the University of California at Irvine's law school, which opened in 2009.

While a few campuses in addition to Irvine, such as Lincoln Memorial University, have started law schools in recent years, and several others have campuses in the works, colleges seem more likely now than ever to abandon such ambitions. In addition to Delaware, Wilkes University, the University of New Haven, Husson College, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook have all tabled or canceled recent plans to construct law schools.

Their cancellations come at a time when many colleges are still making the case that law schools are good investments for universities, even as students are questioning the value of law degrees and their employment prospects, and law schools are seeing application numbers drop.

Delaware's law school was part of the university's strategic plan, published in 2008, to increase its prominence and reputation. While the university has strong academic programs, it has neither a medical school nor a law school, which are found at most of the universities it considers its peers.

The main barrier Delaware officials discovered was the cost of establishing a highly ranked law school, which they hoped theirs would become. They did not have a physical space for the school to occupy; obtaining one would have been a major expense. The amenities required for a modern law school, including an extensive law library and top-tier faculty, also come at a steep price. On top of that, they recognized that they would probably have to discount tuition for several years while they sought accreditation from the American Bar Association.

Delaware officials cited a projected $100 million in capital expenditures and a projected $165 million deficit for the law school's first 10 years of operation. Those are numbers that the university would be unlikely to meet without a dramatic shift in its priorities, a major gift from private donors, or an infusion from the state.

“Today, we know more clearly than we did last fall how big our fund-raising effort in support of a law school would have to be,” President Patrick Harker said in a speech to Delaware trustees Tuesday. “And so, while I acknowledge the benefits to be gained by a UD law school -- benefits that the last several months of analysis have illuminated -- I have proposed to the board that we terminate further active consideration of this initiative.”

David Brond, the university's vice president for communications and marketing, said fund-raising for the law school would detract from the university's other priorities, including a science and engineering complex, a new campus bookstore, and athletic facilities.

Officials still think there is demand for a public law school in Delaware, which is home to many large corporations because it doesn't have a corporate income tax. The state has no public law school and only one private law school, at Widener University.

"There is the possibility that we could reconsider a law school at some future date," Harker said to trustees Tuesday. "But only if its establishment can be achieved without displacing existing university priorities."

Brond said officials were proud of the extensive background work they did and for recognizing that the law school was not fiscally feasible before jumping into it. “We didn’t do this just by sticking a finger out in the wind to see which way it was blowing," he said. "We thought about this thoroughly.”

State financial constraints have kept SUNY Stony Brook from moving forward with its plans, said a university spokeswoman. Husson College, which was not seeking ABA accreditation but instead wanted state recognition, was unable to obtain that from the state Supreme Court.

Delaware and other universities' decision not to bring their law school dreams to fruition might have been informed by the success story at UC Irvine, which had the same goal as Delaware -- a top-20 law school -- but completely different circumstances.

A number of major law schools have been made possible through large donations that helped cover many of the start-up costs. Irvine's new law school, which opened in 2009, is one of them. The university received a $20 million gift from Irvine-based philanthropist Donald Bren for endowed professorships, as well as several other gifts of hundreds of thousands of dollars from local companies.

Because of that infusion of cash, the university was able to hire faculty members from top-20 law schools and give them endowed professorships, as well as to provide free tuition to the inaugural class, 50 percent off to the second class, and 33 percent off to the third class. The law school is also occupying a building that was already built, which helped avoid a major cost other colleges face. The university does not plan to construct a new facility for several years.

While the Irvine experience makes starting a law school look almost easy, Cannon said that plan is probably not replicable for other universities without major windfalls or other fortuitous circumstances.


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