Closing Time: As Whittier Law School prepares to close, its dean tries to soften the blow for students
When Rudy Hasl became interim dean at Whittier Law School several months after the April 2017 announcement the school would be gradually closing, he said many students were still consumed with anger and grief about the unsettling news.
The longtime legal educator responded by arranging for a psychologist to come to the law school’s Orange County campus once a week to meet with students, and the free counseling that began in fall 2017 has continued since.
The initiative is one example of how Hasl has worked to carry out the closure of the American Bar Association-accredited law school in the least painful manner for students, while also providing a mix of new educational opportunities for the aspiring lawyers who remained at Whittier.
“The backdrop is still one that is an unfortunate situation that they didn’t buy into when they came to the law school,” Hasl says. “My job is to get them all through it.”
Hasl was hired by the law school’s parent university, Whittier College, which made the decision that the law school would stop accepting new students and shutter once the previously enrolled students completed their degrees. The closure determination came amid sharply declining enrollment and poor bar exam performance by graduates of the school founded in 1966.
Whittier Law School saw its first-year enrollment drop from 303 students in the fall of 2010 to 132 students in the fall of 2016, a 56% decline. Meanwhile, just 22% of the school’s first-time California bar exam takers passed the July 2016 test, the lowest rate among American Bar Association-accredited schools in the state.
Sharon Herzberger, the president of Whittier College when the decision to close the law school was made, said in a 2017 interview that efforts to find a buyer for the law school or merge it with another institution were unsuccessful. She also said the school had tried hard to strike the right balance between being selective in its admissions decisions and enrolling enough students for the school to be financially viable.
Hasl, who previously served as dean at four ABA-accredited law schools and has held legal education leadership positions at the ABA, says there were roughly 160 students at the Costa Mesa-based law school at the start of the fall 2017 semester.
He initially worked to encourage students to finish their degrees at Whittier, by maintaining scholarship levels with the support of the parent university. But Hasl has also assisted those students who desired to transfer to or visit other universities.
SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS
Nina Caldwell is one student who has benefited from the law school’s support of students visiting other universities to fulfill their Whittier requirements. After studying abroad with Whittier professors at Nanjing University in China in the summer of 2018, she studied at William & Mary Law School in the fall of 2018 and was completing her final semester of law school at Seattle University School of Law this spring.
Even though Caldwell worries about the impact Whittier’s closure will have on her ability to land a job as a prosecutor or public defender, she says she feels blessed with respect to how her law school career concluded.
“I know that I honestly got an amazingly unique legal education that I wouldn’t have had if not for the closure,” she says.
Meanwhile, another significant component of Hasl’s work at the law school has been ensuring students could still complete necessary classes even as the size of Whittier’s faculty shrank.
One step he took to achieve that goal was entering into a contract with iLaw, a subsidiary of BARBRI that provides online courses and programs. The fall 2018 semester was the first time Whittier students could take online classes, including some in specialized areas, such as sports law and securities regulation, that were not typically available at the school.
The school also allowed some former students, who had discontinued their studies, to return to finish their degrees.
Elena Zorba, who had departed Whittier Law School several years ago because of a family medical issue, was one of the students who returned. She had initially planned to restart classes last fall in hopes of completing the 12 units she needed to graduate. But soon after, Zorba learned she was pregnant with her fifth child, and she began experiencing extreme morning sickness.
She says Whittier’s administration was understanding, permitting her to restart her studies this spring. The school also allowed her to take all her classes online, which she says was essential because she does not have child care.
“I did not expect the law school would allow me to come back and complete my remaining units,” Zorba says. “They were very understanding about my circumstances and very accommodating.”
COUNTDOWN TO CLOSURE
According to Hasl, there will be very few Whittier students still needing to finish their studies after May 2019. Since the school’s lease in Costa Mesa will expire in the late summer, individual plans will be worked out to help those remaining students complete their requirements through online courses or visiting at other schools.
Earlier this year, Hasl also secured the permission of the ABA and Whittier College to reenroll students who in recent years had transferred to Western State College of Law, a fellow ABA-accredited school in Orange County. Western State’s parent university, Argosy, faced financial challenges and was cut off from federal financial aid programs in early 2019, creating uncertainty about the law school’s long-term future.
Hasl expects the teach-out and closure process to be complete by spring 2020.
“As far as we are concerned, it is proceeding in an orderly fashion,” said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education.
Lyle Moran is a San Diego-based freelance reporter who specializes in legal issues. He has previously reported for the Associated Press, Los Angeles Daily Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript and the Lowell Sun.