Local focus could help law schools beef up enrollment

The midstate’s two law schools hope their newly minted status as independent institutions can help them escape the effects of a nationwide decline in law-school enrollment that has persisted for nearly half a decade.

Both Penn State’s Dickinson Law School in Carlisle and Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Susquehanna Township will start the 2015 fall semester as independent schools after separating from their academic parents.

School officials believe that independence — with new curricula focused on the needs of the region — could mean more students in the classroom. Dickinson Law remains part of Pennsylvania State University and Commonwealth Law remains part of Widener, but each of the systems’ law school campuses has a separate curriculum and focus from the counterpart campus.

“As an independent, we can showcase what we do best,” said Christian A. Johnson, new dean at Commonwealth Law.

At Dickinson, the independent approach allows a break from the unified approach of “one school, two campuses” it followed after it partnered with Penn State in 2000.

“With the unified model, where it was one school with two campuses conferring one degree, the educational experience needed to be homogeneous,” said Bekah Saidman-Krauss, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at Dickinson Law. “We couldn’t build out these programs that were available in our geography. Now we’re really able to offer these resources that were in our backyard and build them out.”

For both schools, independence comes as the number of people interested in law school has been dropping.

According to the American Bar Association, nearly 38,000 first-year students started at the country’s 204 law schools in the fall of 2014. That was down 4.4 percent from 2013, and down almost 28 percent from its historic high of 52,488 in 2010.

The 2014 enrollment was the lowest first-year enrollment since 1973, when there were only 151 law schools, according to the ABA.

The number of students taking the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, also is falling. According to the Law School Admission Council Inc., based outside Philadelphia, 105,500 students took the LSAT during the 2013-14 school year. That figure was down for the fourth year in a row from a high of 171,500 in the 2009-10 school year.

While Johnson said some of those numbers may be overblown — “It kind of feels like it gets reported, then everyone piles on,” he said — he also said there is no denying the statistics.

Michael Sadowski

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