Law dean plans for falling enrollment

The GW Law School will enroll up to a 10 percent smaller first-year class this fall after a historically low application season, a move that will translate to fewer tuition dollars during a turbulent time for law schools nationwide.

Dean Paul Schiff Berman said he has looked to downsize one of the largest top-tier law schools in the country since he took the helm last year, predicting the law school could enroll as few as 425 first-year students in the fall, down from this year’s class of 474.

The move would benefit students, Berman said, as the law school looks to improve academic and student life by bringing budding lawyers closer together.

“If the class size is smaller, it makes this more intimate. That’s preferable, but obviously it cuts into tuition revenue, so the issue is how to make the law school smaller but continue to have it run,” said Berman, who came to GW last May from Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which has a first-year class of about 200.

Berman said he hopes to see GW’s first-year class size shrink to about 400 students in the next five years. First-year enrollment has fluctuated since 2007, peaking at 523 students two years ago.

Ranked No. 20 by U.S. News and World Report, the law school counted a 16.5 percent drop in applications this year, about on par with the dramatic decline nationwide as the legal job market flounders nationally but a larger slump than many peer schools.

“It’s been a challenging year because applications are down to the law school, and to all law schools generally, and that’s complicated [tracking potential enrollment],” Berman, who is finishing up his first year as dean, said.

Plans to cut enrollment also mean fewer tuition dollars streaming into the law school. Berman said by adding programs for non-lawyers, like master’s programs in government contracting and intellectual property law, the school could “expand the scope for what counts as legal education.”

Berman said in February that full- and part-time law students will face a 3.9 percent tuition bump in the 2012-2013 academic year, which he touted as slightly lower than most of GW’s other graduate programs.

Intensified fundraising programs and added programs could offset lost tuition revenue, he said, and fewer students would reduce crowding and increase selectivity.

The law school raised more than $10 million in Berman’s first year as dean, and he said he wants to add $120 million more over the next several years to pay for more scholarships and add academic space.

Few other law schools have announced plans to make sharp cuts in enrollment. The dean of the University of California-Hastings College of Law, Frank Wu, made headlines last month after he told Inside Higher Ed the school would decrease its student base by 20 percent next year to help “reboot the system” for law schools failing to find students jobs.

Enrollment cuts will help law schools adapt to a changing legal job market, said Paul Caron, a visiting law professor at Pepperdine University and a legal blogger. Caron has taken aim at law schools for failing to adjust their curricula and admissions practices as legal jobs dwindle, but called reducing class size a “helpful first step.”

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