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A former Hastings law school dean says that struggling law schools need to make big changes to survive, and mergers may be their solution in a difficult economy.
Frank H. Wu, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law who served as dean from 2010-2015, knows the trouble they've seen. Facing financial pressures from falling enrollments that rocked law schools across the country, many schools lowered their admissions standards and then saw their students' bar pass rates fall.
In 2016, Hastings' pass rate dropped to an embarrassing low of 51 percent. Hastings dean David Faigman called upon the law school to improve, but also blasted California's bar examiners for making the test too hard. "This is outrageous and constitutes unconscionable conduct on the part of a trade association that masquerades as a state agency," he said.
At the same time, the job market shrank for lawyers and fewer students enrolled for law school. Wu says the problem is economic.
Bottom Line: Hard Times for Law Schools
"Law schools are running deficits," Wu wrote in the National Law Journal. "These are not one-time shortages that they could recover from, but recurring losses that will accumulate until they are too great to sustain."
While law school enrollment numbers may be leveling out after hitting a 42-year low this year, Wu weathered some of the toughest times during his time at the Hastings' helm. Enrollments dropped, bar pass rates went down and the school fell in national rankings from 42nd to 54th during is tenure.
Wu said that the legal marketplace is forcing law schools, and law firms, to make changes. He said clients are demanding more services for less money, while technology and the global economy are forcing prices down.
"Sophisticated clients are like everyone: They want to save money," he said. "They can turn almost all assignments into 'commodity work.' Except for the very best in a field, that means billing rates will be driven down."
Merge, Maybe, Merge
Wu says that other law schools should follow suit. He said dozens of campuses are struggling to keep up on their own. Law schools must adapt to survive, he said, and mergers can help.
"The 'new normal' will not remain new, nor normal," he said.