How St. Thomas’ law school is faring in the enrollment decline

Vischer (UST)

The national law-school slump has hit the University of St. Thomas School of Law as it has many others, but Dean Rob Vischer says its endowment should keep it solid for years to come.

The school was built for 150 students per class, he says, and has been a above or below that number through the years. (Update: He says the average fall enrollment has been 145 students over the school’s 13 years.) Vischer says instead of lowering admissions standards, St. Thomas decided to let the school become smaller.

He projects about 120 students for this upcoming term — down about 16 percent from 143 students last fall.

That has had its consequences, of course.

Vischer says that since he became dean in January, he has cut the equivalent of 2.5 staff positions from a staff of about 35 — about 6 percent. And he decided not to renew the contract of a visiting professor, one of about 30 faculty positions.

But the dean says his law school’s $60 million endowment has reduced the stress and enabled him to think about a long-term strategy:

“We have ample financial resources to navigate this, but still need to be prudent … Law schools need to be more deliberate about what they’re offering. There’s a greater sense of urgency.”

Vischer says he sees “tremendous opportunity” in the compliance field — a hybrid of law and business ethics — and is trying to develop a series of degrees in conjunction with the business school. Programs would be open to both law students and those outside the field.

He told me:

“It’s a huge growth industry, but it’s a young industry, and there (are few) formal academic entryways. Professionals need a good nuts-and-bolts understanding of compliance, but also of liability and a core understanding of business ethics.”

He says the degree could serve those working in industries such as health care, banking, securities and the environment.

Vischer says the idea isn’t just a reaction to the recent downturn. The degree feeds into the St. Thomas aim of providing “legal education for the whole person.”

That’s where the intimacy of a small program works well.

He told me:

“Sometimes smaller is better. …  A modest reduction in class size can help us facilitate the education of the whole person. … None of this immunizes us from market downturn, but it helps.”

On a side note: Vischer says that at a time when some law graduates are suing their schools, more than half of St. Thomas alumni have donated money to the school each year.