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VALPARAISO — Valparaiso University Law School is not alone as it deals with a post-recession drop in enrollment.

Valparaiso University announced Feb. 26 it was offering tenured faculty and those with multi-year contracts a buyout, citing a sharp decline in student applications and enrollment at its law school.

University spokeswoman Nicole Niemi said then that VU is no exception to the sharp decline in student applications and enrollment at law schools since the recession.

Notre Dame and Indiana University law schools also have seen their class sizes shrink, but some believe the student shortage has bottomed out and job outlooks are promising.

Linda Hanson, president emeritus of Hamline University in Minnesota, commends VU for downsizing.

"You cannot stay at a size that is too large for the number of students they are attracting," she said. 

Hanson was on the negotiating team during the 2015 merger of Hamline School of Law with Mitchell College of Law, a move that came in the midst of declining enrollment in law schools nationwide. Hanson, who is on the board of Mitchell/Hamline School of Law, has been following closely what's been happening since 2010 when law school enrollment began to drop off. 

However, Hanson, who said the Great Lakes region saw the deepest decrease of applications compared to any other region in the country, said there has been a "bottoming out" and some enrollments nationwide are beginning to pick up. 

"The biggest indicator of that is the LSAT (law school admission test)," she said. "In December 2015, the number of students who took the LSAT spiked by 6.6 percent. Those LSAT takers are more than likely to apply for admission next fall 2016."

Kevin O'Rear, assistant dean for academic and student affairs at Notre Dame, said applications to its law school and others across the country were down significantly following the recession but the trend has reversed at Notre Dame in the last few years. 

"Our applications have slightly gone up," he said. "The size of our first-year class has increased the past couple of years and the quality of students has gone up as well. We're very fortunate and grateful for that. I think we're in good shape."

Hanson said Notre Dame is ranked in the top tier of law schools and will attract a student with a different academic profile who scores high on the LSAT compared to those attending lower-ranked schools. 

"LSAT scores do make a difference," she said. "More prominent law schools may be seeing enrollment growth."

Ken Turchi, spokeswoman for Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said its current class size is 153, but they had much bigger classes up to around the 2010/11 school year. 

"We don't expect to have classes that high again," he said. "There's a kind of inverse relationship between the state of the economy and the number of people who want to go to law school. When the economy is not as good people stay in school." 

Turchi said they do expect a slightly larger class next year. 

Chris Freiberg, who graduated from VU's law school last year and is currently working as an attorney at a relative's firm, said while he is sad to see VU law professors put in their current position, he said more students are understanding the risk involved with pursuing a law degree, so enrollment is down at schools. 

"The average graduate cannot expect to make enough in the years following graduation to even hope to make a dent in the student loans they take on from going to law school," he said. "And that's if they can even pass the bar and find a job as an attorney."

Daria Richardson, a third-year VU law student, said the news of the buyout came as a surprise, but she hopes if enrollment is down across the board at law schools that "the market for new graduates will be more promising."

Hanson said the good news is the employment rate is going up and more lawyers are being hired. 

"There is some cause for optimism for schools that have taken action to right-size their law faculty and staff with the number of students they have." 

Valparaiso University did not comment for the story. 


Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.