Our nation’s shrinking law schools are causing wide-spread angst in deans’ offices around the country, and indeed there are economic implications to this trend that must be managed carefully. But at least for St. Thomas, the new market reality opens up promising opportunities for our law school and our mission by making it easier to educate the whole person.

As I write this, I don’t know what the exact size of our fall 2013 entering class will turn out to be. Quality, not quantity, continues to be our overriding focus. Anyone who has followed legal education knows that the national applicant pool has shrunk considerably over the past few years, and thus law schools are faced with a stark choice: get smaller or lower admissions standards. We are aiming to build a strong class, and that means it will be a smaller class.

The fact that the change is not entirely of our own choosing does not mean that we should hesitate to embrace it as a welcome impetus for improvement and further innovation. At the same time, we should recognize that the trend toward smaller law schools will not benefit all schools equally. As a law school centered on mentoring, experiential learning, close faculty-student collaboration and a robust sense of community, this trend plays to our strengths.

Over the past few years, for example, we have increased dramatically the number of clinics we offer (from three to 11) and introduced practicum courses in which small groups of students perform the real-world tasks of lawyers in a given field under close faculty supervision. We also have redoubled our commitment to giving students an intensive one-on-one research and writing experience with faculty through the upper-level writing requirement, and we have shifted the mentor externship curriculum away from the traditional classroom toward one-on-one professional development sessions with the program’s faculty. Even in our first-year classes, more professors are assigning papers and small- group projects. Through these and other steps, we have been working to make sure that the bulk of our students’ educa- tion takes place outside the traditional lecture format.

If law school is just about transferring information, then size does not really matter: when it comes to lecturing, a classroom of 60 students is not meaningfully different than a classroom of 90 students. If every student is an island, then it makes no difference whether you’re part of an archi- pelago of 1,000 islands or 10. But if law school approaches professional identity formation as encompassing not just information transfer, but the development of competencies such as teamwork, judgment, moral discernment, trust and leadership, then size matters a great deal.

We do not teach our students island by island. We teach in and through relationship. This year’s entering students do not arrive at a law school clamoring to fill every available seat; they are joining a mission-driven community committed to changing the world by taking professional forma- tion seriously. We may be getting smaller, but we are also getting better.

Robert Vischer
University of St. Thomas School of Law

Read more from St. Thomas Lawyer.

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