UNC School of Law: How to Thrive in a Challenging Market

Strategic Insights Blog | October 15, 2015

It’s no secret that law schools are struggling right now. As the job market prospects dried up for graduates in the wake of the Great Recession, schools have scrambled to address the decline of enrollment and tuition revenue that has followed. Institutions are implementing a variety of measures, from drastically cutting tuition to implementing 2-year programs and experiential education initiatives, as well as changing the nature of the third year of law school.

It’s unlikely, however, that simply following general trends will solve the fundamental positioning problems facing many individual institutions. Law schools must anticipate market challenges that are particular to them, and this is exactly what Jack Boger, former dean of University of North Carolina School of Law (Carolina Law), did to guide the School through this downturn and ensure its continued success. As a result, Boger was able to retire last year leaving Carolina Law well-positioned to compete in today’s law school environment.

Carolina Law initially engaged Art & Science Group in 2008 to conduct market research and develop institutional strategy. Although the school enjoyed a strong reputation, concerns about shifting tides in the legal market — coupled with losses in state and budget revenue as a result of the recession — prompted Boger and Carolina Law to act immediately rather than risk stagnation. A&S’s recommendations prompted the school to implement a positioning strategy that emphasized a practical, affordable law education that produced a minimum of student debt. This strategy, along with changes in the School’s admissions operations based on an assessment conducted by A&S, led to an improvement in the institution’s competitive position. Years later, many law schools are only now catching up to the strategies that Carolina Law had the foresight to implement.

In this interview, Boger talks about the following:

  • Understanding your individual market
  • Clarifying institutional strength and distinctions
  • Maintaining an efficient and state-of-the-art admissions operation

 

A&S: Before undertaking market research concerning positioning and pricing, Carolina Law was in a relatively strong position from a ranking and market standpoint. What brought about the desire to explore potential changes?

Dean Boger: The desire was three-fold. First, we sensed that the legal market was moving in directions that were unclear to us. Second, we were experiencing some loss of state revenue and budget revenue after 2008 and wanted to know what particular tuition level we could reach while still best serving our students, both residents and non-residents. Finally, we wanted more empirically-based information about our perceived strengths and weaknesses among prospective students.

 

As a result of the recommendations, Carolina Law took a course of action to emphasize its broad, practical education combined with low graduate debt. What actions did you take to ensure that this strategic direction was effectively implemented?

We did a lot of things: we reshaped our communications, both in print and online, to emphasize the themes that Art & Science research showed to be most attractive to prospective students. We re-framed some of the ways we talked about ourselves internally. Ironically, your research showed that we weren’t celebrating some of our actual strengths enough. We were relieved by this news: we didn’t need to become something we weren’t. Instead, you told us, if we simply clarified strengths we already have, good students would come to us. A&S helped us, in sum, to sharpen and fortify who we were. We talked with staff, faculty, and students in order to determine these values.

A&S also undertook an operations assessment of our admissions practices that produced excellent recommendations which we began implementing right away. We converted our paper admissions files to an electronic database. We worked to accelerate our responses to applicants; previously, we had waited too long after admitting applicants before notifying them about their admission and scholarship offers. We had become comfortable waiting eight, ten, twelve weeks after receiving completed applications, because we hadn’t lost enrollment despite doing so. After A&S’s recommendations, we became more proactive in identifying good candidates immediately after their completion of LSAT testing time, and we began to contact them even before they applied to UNC. Now that’s very much a part of what we do annually. We were very fortunate to procure empirical information about other principal schools to which our potential students applied and why. It was illuminating to learn both when to begin engaging applicants, and what levels of scholarship offers might best affect our ultimate yield.

 

As you know, law schools across the country are experiencing significant declines in enrollment. Many of these schools are now trying to move in the direction that Carolina Law committed to: emphasizing practical education and low debt (or low tuition), etc. Do you think this approach could help many of these institutions, or do the problems go deeper than that for law schools currently?

One of the major things the research provided for us was advice on our own best direction that went beyond general trends. Making informed choices requires schools to take a very close look at their geographical setting, their mission and traditions, and their faculty and curriculum. While general ideas can be useful to these struggling schools, each must ultimately ask “what are the most successful things we can do based on who we are?” If a tsunami comes and you’re on the beach, your reaction will inevitably be different than if you are situated on a nearby mountainside. No well-informed response can be the same; what a school should do depends upon both the challenges and the characteristics of the individual school.

We modified our curriculum at UNC, in part, because we are a flagship state school that sends our graduates into a wide variety of settings including firms small and large as well as government settings. We were able to make use of that heterogeneity in our positioning to attract applicants as well. I suppose that if you were among the 20 plus law schools in the New York City metro area, for example, positioning your school would require different responses, unique to your marketplace, mission, and circumstances. Good research immensely helps informs a school about the marketplace.

 

Ultimately, what is your advice to the leaders navigating today’s rapidly changing landscape?

It all comes down to taking your own measurements, assessing what prospective students might value in your program and tailoring a solution according to your particular situation. I don’t think many of us saw the dramatic downturn in student applications coming. Taking a fresh look at the factors that influence students to apply and enroll is helpful, especially as the level of competitiveness change based on market changes. Examining what you can do as an institution to gain an advantage helps prepare you when the status quo gets pulled out from under you.

 

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