Legal education has always been challenging. The first year, with its Socratic dialogue and case method, is the subject of legend. Yet legal education now faces its own challenges. Every week seems to bring another exposé on the bad practices of law schools and the alleged corruption of their leaders. The articles might be not quite accurate or may reflect anxieties about the economy misdirected toward a particular profession, but they have undoubtedly had an effect.
Although observers may wonder whether a law degree from any institution is a good investment, I am enthusiastic in recommending what we at UC Hastings College of the Law have to offer.
We are confident about our course of action. With practical skills training, international scope, and interdisciplinary methodologies for problem-solving, we are developing a new paradigm for legal education. We are working on our strategic plan, shrinking in size because it is the right thing to do, providing scholarships that last and employment statistics that are honest, boosting the visibility and reputation of the school, and raising funds from private sources.
I would like to take a moment with you to proactively address these matters. I’m writing to you as a member of our dedicated staff, who have been involved in every aspect of our operations and without whom we could accomplish none of the tasks that must be done to achieve our objectives.
We must behave responsibly within a marketplace that has limits. Our faculty has voted overwhelmingly to enroll fewer students rather than more.
As the first law school of the University of California system, we have historically been among the largest law schools in the nation. Many graduates who I visit recall as if it were yesterday the UC Hastings of more than a generation ago, when we would welcome well over 500 new students each autumn and occasionally boasted total enrollment exceeding 1,500. The model of legal education was different in that era, with higher levels of attrition than would be acceptable today.
As recently as two years ago, we had 475 1Ls. For the class arriving in a few weeks, our goal is 400 new students who pay tuition. We are proud to participate in the mandated fee waiver for disabled veterans and the children of disabled and deceased veterans, which accounts for as many as 20 students per class.
On an ongoing basis, we are making every effort to reduce our size. We will maintain our commitment to access, with 20% of the students joining us through the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP), which is open to individuals of all backgrounds who show promise and have experienced significant adversity.
UC Hastings must do more than provide our students with a first-tier legal education, because our reputation is bound together with theirs. To ensure our degrees possess the highest possible value, we are addressing rankings. As we do so, I have made explicit and will repeat that we will implement only those measures that are ethical and can be justified in educational terms.
Among the key factors is our reputation with academics as well as the bench and the bar. Everyone associated with the institution is able to send a message about its quality. We share an interest in ensuring that message is as positive as possible.
I would like to turn to two subjects that have attracted attention of late: renewable scholarships that are more than they appear, and employment statistics that are less than they appear. Although UC Hastings has followed policies that ought to be regarded positively, we need to be careful not to seem too self-satisfied. Cynics are skeptical, as they are right to be, especially of those who would proclaim their own virtue. Nonetheless, the facts are favorable and should be shared.
Almost all of the students who are given renewable scholarships at UC Hastings are able to retain that funding throughout their upper-class years. There have been reports of other schools promising 1Ls extravagant packages of funding, typically to enhance the school’s rank by luring away students from better schools. These schools then require their students to maintain a high grade point average. The forced curve, known to the school but not disclosed in detail to the students, ensures a high proportion of 1Ls are certain to lose their “merit” awards.
We are different. We will give out approximately $13.5 million in financial aid this coming academic year. The bulk of these dollars are committed as grants on the basis of need. Only a few privately-established scholarships specify the maintenance of a GPA above the minimum of good standing.
Our Bridge Fellow Program provides meaningful legal work for UC Hastings graduates. Some schools, it is said, hire their recent alumni to shelve books in the library for a few days during the crucial reporting period. Despite inflating data, in order to boost rank, this scheme does not serve students well.
We are different. UC Hastings awarded $230,000 to our post-graduate Fellows this year, thanks to the contributions brought in by the UC Hastings Foundation. And we have budgeted even more for next year. The recipients generally find jobs serving the public interest, including employment with nonprofit organizations and government agencies, performing real legal work for up to 12 weeks. Some of them, given this chance, have been able to turn these fellowships into permanent positions.
In addition, we voluntarily publish more information about employment results than we are obligated to do, breaking out types of jobs, the numbers taking such jobs, and the associated salaries. Notwithstanding our strength among elite law firms, with a rank in the twenties for placement among them, we recognize that most UC Hastings graduates will find ample success in other segments of the bar.
We also are the same. We function within the same economy as everyone else, an economy that is dynamic, global, and stratified—and that is especially difficult for the moment. Higher education faces increasing expectations about what it can do for people. Public institutions receive decreasing levels of state funding. Rankings create incentives that are detrimental. We compete to attract students, we compete on behalf of students, and we compete to recruit and retain a talented and diverse faculty and staff.
No single institution, or for that matter single leader, is able to operate independently from these forces. What we can do is develop a vision, communicate it, and motivate stakeholders to cooperate in realizing it.
It is true that UC Hastings has been compelled to increase tuition. Our decisions to do so have been the result of severe changes in the level of state support. These changes in public policy priorities are structural, not temporary. Thus we are pursuing private support as never before. Ultimately, our success will depend on the strength of our community.
None of these endeavors is easy. We remain largely dependent on tuition. So enrollment affects revenue. And virtually every improvement we make must be accounted for fiscally.
While I have been honored to receive congratulations on finishing my first year, I would like to commend my colleagues, faculty and staff alike, for their dedication to a compelling cause. The American Dream is made possible by the rule of law and the opportunity for higher education.
We are different, and we have only begun.
-Frank H. Wu, Chancellor and Dean