Failure to Launch: The Curious Case of Wilkes Law School, PA

Most criticisms of new law schools target UC Irvine and UMass School of Law.  Too bad the critics missed an opportunity to celebrate: last month Wilkes Law School’s opening was delayed two to four years according to Citizen’s Voice’s Andrew Staub, “Financial Worries Stall Wilkes Law School Plans.”

I'm proud to say this emerged from my imagination.

Eyeballing the Wikipedia, Northeastern Pennsylvania’s population is probably 1.2 million, and with only 325 students leaves 3,738.5 inhabitants per law student.  That looks pretty good, but the state average is much lower.  Pennsylvania, according to my research, is just above the national average (17th) in law students/state population (2,118.8), has a somewhat low law school/state population ratio (34th), but has one law student for every $93 million gross state product (18th, below national average).  With eight law schools operating, another law school adding 325 full time students (alone!) would move the state to 15th in law students per population, 25th in law schools per population, and 16th in law students per $1 million GSP (2,009, 1,400,529.7, and $88.2 million).  It’s not as severe as the rest of the northeast, the Valley of Death for law students, but including part-time students, Widener’s Wilmington, DE campus (close to Philadelphia) and law schools in badly-saturated New York, the new law school probably wouldn’t do students, the region, or the state much good.

Given the tuition bubble, it’s odd that a law school would fail to open, especially due to financial concerns.  The university was also renovating a learning center, so I figure that’s the more likely culprit than the recession rendering a new law school unfeasible.  It makes more sense given the masses thronging to LSAT test centers nationwide.

Staub writes:

[Wilke’s Dean] Prescott’s vision included a school that would support the equivalent of about 325 full-time law students, while providing them with top-notch instructors and financial incentives to attend the school, he said. The plan also called for a part-time program for students who worked during the day and legal clinics that could help alleviate the workload on public defenders and provide experience for students. [Emphasis added]

Earlier, Staub notes the school would compete with the state’s mid-level schools.  I’m curious how a mid-level school attracts “top-notch faculty” without paying them stratospheric salaries and can afford to give students “financial incentives” to attend it.  Not that law school competition is a bad thing (an idea I intend to write on later), but I just don’t see any law schools opting to provide local education at the cost of their US News rankings.  Presumably, students would try to interview at Philadelphia, Pittsburg, or New York firms (once the economy recovers) rather than stay in the area.  Moreover, Wilkes Law School would eagerly invite these firms to conduct on-campus interviews over placing students in local firms or starting them in solo practices.  Then it would tout these students in its graduate employment statistics.  That’s how law schools work: they advertize based on salaries not on local placement, even if local placement is a more realistic (and probably more sustainable) outcome than relocating to larger markets.

Now for Wilkes Law School’s “legal clinics.”  When Luzerne County DA Jackie Musto Carroll hopes the law school would train students in juvenile law, I wonder why she doesn’t put up Craigslist ads in the Philadelphia or Pittsburg areas to lure law students to Northeastern Pennsylvania.  2010 graduates are suffering in mass unemployment because of the Great Recession, so applicants should be willing to work there since there aren’t any legal jobs anywhere else.  The gripe I have with these arguments for a regional law school is that they treat law schools like they’re hospitals.  True, law schools provide a link to the government and legal profession via professors and student clinics.  However, regions like Northeast Pennsylvania would be far better served with semester programs focusing on juvenile or criminal law operated by state public university branch campuses[i] with fewer students and faculty than another law school permanently indebting its students.  For all its claimed benefits, Wilkes Law School would also likely serve as a regional parasite, preying on its local part-time students with nondischargeable debt.  Something tells me that calculus didn’t appear in Dean Prescott’s feasibility study.

[i] Kind of like, oh I don’t know, Temple University’s Japan campus…


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