Bar News - April 20, 2016
Amid National Legal Ed Slump, UNH Law Rises
By: Kristen Senz
In confronting the nationwide decline in law school applications and enrollments that many in legal education have called “a crisis,” while also navigating a merger with the University of New Hampshire, the UNH School of Law has taken a different approach than most other law schools in the country.
Instead of accepting less-qualified applicants or making more offers of acceptance to keep classrooms full, as other law schools have done, UNH Law (formerly Franklin Pierce Law Center) allowed its student body to shrink, made some strategic hires, expanded programming and overall adopted a strategy to “double-down on excellence,” as Interim Dean Jordan Budd recently put it.
“I think there was broad consensus that a volume strategy, for lack of a better phrase, simply would not work in New Hampshire,” says Budd. “There’s just not enough people here. For our law school to survive and thrive, we will always need to fill our classrooms with people from across the region and across the globe.”
In the past three years, the total number of students attending UNH Law has dropped nearly 30 percent, from 305 in 2013, to 217 this year. But the law school has consistently offered admission to roughly 54 percent of applicants, according to statistics the school provided, even though the number of applications decreased by nearly 22 percent between fall 2013 and fall 2015. The average LSAT score of the lowest-scoring 25 percent of incoming students has also remained consistent, at 153.
During that same three-year period, New Hampshire’s only law school has climbed a whopping 55 spots in the annual US News and World Report rankings, landing this year at 82, while securing the fifth-highest ranking in intellectual property, up from ninth last year. As its rankings increase and the law school attracts national publicity, as it did last year when a national study pointed to its Daniel Webster Scholars program as a model for practical legal education, Budd says the school is gaining a higher profile.
“I think what we’re in the process of doing is gradually changing the perception of the school among potential law students in the region, and we’re doing that by highlighting a whole variety of things that we’re doing now well,” he says. “Producing practice-ready attorneys is a huge part of our narrative.”
The law school has historically relied on the connections of faculty and alumni to help attract international students. An early faculty member who was fluent in Chinese helped spread the word about the school in China, “but there are a lot of law schools drawing students from there now,” Budd says.
The interim dean recently visited India to begin building multidimensional partnerships with institutions there. Palligarnai Vasudevan, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at UNH, said law school alumni who are in high-ranking positions in India, including the chief attorney for Disney India and a partner at Solomon & Roy in Mumbai, are helping the law school forge partnerships to include faculty and student exchange programs, and opportunities for foreign students to earn both an undergraduate degree in English and a law degree in six years.
As the law school grows, Budd says it will need to develop mechanisms to more consistently engage alumni in the workings of the school, by offering residencies and experiential learning programs for students, as a way to enhance philanthropy.
In addition to all the outside pressure on law schools to adjust their curricula and tuition rates, UNH Law has been going through a sometimes-painful internal transition, as the former private, small institution has become part of a much larger state university.
When the law school officially merged with UNH on Jan. 1, 2014, the law school’s board of trustees was dissolved and a more informal dean’s advisory board was created. There were challenges and some discontent associated with integrating law school operations, including software, contracts and other systems, with UNH, which Vasudevan points out is “dead last” in the country in terms of the amount of state support it receives. Despite the challenges, integration has enabled the university to realize some efficiencies.
“We are pretty resourceful, and you have to be if you live in New Hampshire,” says Vasudevan, a chemical engineer who has worked at UNH for 28 years. “You find ways to get the biggest bang for the buck, and we are pretty used to this.”
Like the six other colleges that are part of the university, including UNH Manchester, the law school maintains an autonomous budget. The deans all report to Vasudevan, who will return to his previous job as vice provost Sept. 1, when Nancy Targett, the current interim president at the University of Delaware, will take over as provost. Since the merger, UNH has created a new position in Durham, vice president for enrollment management, which reports to the president, Vasudevan said, as part of the unversity’s efforts to increase enrollment across the institution, including at the law school.
Already the functions of communications, branding, advancement, enrollment management and career services that had taken place at the law school have been centralized in Durham, but more work remains. It’s a delicate balance, because what might be best practice in Durham at times doesn’t jibe with the American Bar Association, the accreditation body for American law schools.
“These have to be calibrated and they have to be done delicately, and that’s what we’re doing now,” Vasudevan says. “Slowly, steadily we’re making those changes… It’s also a learning experience for us, and we want to be in compliance with the ABA.”
The merger also offers new academic opportunities, especially given the university’s strengths in the STEM fields and the law school’s history of excellence in intellectual property law. Joint degree programs with the law school are now available in business, social work, and most recently public policy, and the law school’s LLM program is now available online.
The Rudman Center
After the very public departure of former law school dean John Broderick from the position of director at the Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Service last year, the center has done some refocusing. Broderick, who helped found the center with the support of the late US senator, told the press at the time that the university wasn’t putting enough resources toward the center and the big-name public policy forums it was hosting.
Last month, UNH announced that Budd would take over as director of the center next year, at the conclusion of his three-year term as interim dean. At the same time, a name change replaced “Public Policy” with “Public Service” in the center’s title. But Budd and Vasudevan maintain that the center’s mission remains unchanged, and that a strategic alliance with the Carsey School of Public Policy in Durham is poised to yield new initiatives, including the new joint degree program.
“I see this as a natural alliance. I don’t see this as a shift or change, and I’m sure Jordan and Michael (Ettlinger, director of the Carsey School) are happy to work closely to ensure the Rudman Center continues to be the premier center that it has always been, and perhaps even better, because of this partnership,” Vasudevan said.
The primary mission of the Rudman Center has always been to train and support a new generation of public service leaders, through Rudman Center fellowships, and that remains the major focus. The events platform that characterized the center’s early years has expanded to a university-wide scale, branded as the Rudman Public Forum Series, according to Vasudevan. “I would say there’s been an expansion, incrementally, of what the center is able to take on,” he said.
Like the legal profession itself, legal education seems to be on the verge of fundamental change, as economic pressures, changes in the profession, and student loan debt exert pressure on existing systems. Vasudevan said there are signs that the market will correct and that law school applications and enrollments will begin to level off in the next few years.
“Being an engineer and a pragmatist, I know that if that doesn’t happen, you’re likely to see a few more law schools fold,” he said. “It’s a question of supply and demand.”
Budd says he’s not sure what legal education will look like in 10 years, but he believes UNH Law will prove to be a leader in defining those new paradigms. “No one has a crystal ball, but I’m confident that it will continue to move in the direction that we’re moving in, and frankly, in the direction that we’ve largely trail-blazed,” he said.
Whatever happens, Vasudevan said, the university will continue to carry out its strategic plan, and he hopes to see UNH Law continue its trajectory of steadily moving up in the rankings. “It’s a wait-and-see approach, but I think that’s where we are headed, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what’s going to happen in the next couple of years.”