NEWARK — It’s a tough time to be a law school dean.

Nationwide, applications to law schools have fallen about 40 percent in what many view as a crisis in legal education.

The downturn in the economy, a scarity of legal jobs and high law school tuition made many students rethink the idea of spending years training to become a lawyer. Many law schools have had to lay off staff and shrink the size of their incoming classes to stay afloat.

Kathleen Boozang, a veteran professor at Seton Hall School of Law in Newark, took over as dean of New Jersey’s only private law school in 2015 just as the institution was making changes to compensate for declining applications.

Seton Hall Law still had more applications than available seats. But, school officials decided to shrink the incoming class size so the institution could keep up its standards and admit the same quality of students as before.

After 18 months on the job, Boozang told NJ Advance Media that Seton Hall Law is bouncing back with new programs and a renewed mission.

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The entire law school field has been struggling. Seton Hall Law’s applications dropped from 3,666 in 2009 to 1,609 last year. How is the school doing?

We’re doing well. But, you’re exactly right. Applications have declined nationally 40 to 45 percent since 2008 and I think a little bit more than that in the New York metropolitan area. So, while every law school dean is hoping that things will improve as soon as possible, I don’t think I’m counting on the market to ever go back to its heyday. The legal market is changing. It’s being impacted by technology and the global economy. But there are also new opportunities as well that Seton Hall Law is trying to take advantage of.

Are you treating this as the new normal? Will the number of people who want to be lawyers – or pay your $52,022 annual tuition — ever be as high as it was in the past?

We are treating it as the new normal, though we expect there will be a little more expansion than where we are now. So, we’ve developed a 5-year budget model. We’ve really based all of our plans on three key decisions: First, to become a smaller institution. Kathleen Boozang, dean of Seton Hall School of Law (Seton Hall photo)  Second, unlike many law schools, we are maintaining our admissions criteria. The university has supported us in putting quality first because we want to make sure we are graduating students who would pass the bar and gain employment. The third thing is we’re focused on strategic investment to increase our revenue and programmatic offerings – including our Master of Science in Jurisprudence program for non-lawyers.

You are starting a weekend program for part-time students. That’s rare for a law school. Why are you doing it?

Today’s economy has changed in such a way that it has become really challenging for working professionals to pursue a law degree. We see that evidenced not just by fewer people attending, but by the average age of the evening student, which has declined. You are more likely to have people in jobs supporting themselves while they attend law school as opposed to more mid-career professionals who are interested in pursuing legal education. So, we started thinking about how we recruit the working professional in this market. We also did look at what business schools and other graduate programs are doing. We thought that a weekend program where the students attended two-thirds live and one-third online would open up the opportunities and the ability of working professionals to attend Seton Pinbahis Hall Law School.

How has fundraising been going?

I spend a lot of time fundraising. One of the things that we want to take away from the post 2008 economy is that we want to have a stronger financial safety net. The university has been tremendously supportive of us, but going forward, we need a bigger endowment and more robust annual giving, particularly since we are also increasing scholarships at this time. So, I spend a lot of my time telling the Seton Hall Law story, talking to people about how strong our students and graduates are, and encouraging our alums to give.

Have you had to lay off or reduce the size of your faculty?

It’s important to tell both parts of the story, which is contracting and reinvesting. Yes, the university funded a retirement package for our faculty. Under my deanship, we had eight people who took that package. And we had a few a year for the years prior to that. It’s been a fair number. So, even while we did have a number of faculty who retired, we are still in the market this year for two hires in new positions. Yes, we have contracted, but we are still strategically investing.

Some schools say the upside of the drop in applications is more women and minority students have been able to get into top law schools. Are you seeing more diversity in your classes?

It’s unquestionably the case that our applications of diverse applicants suffered much less of a decline than the overall application pool. So, we have been able to diversify our class.

It’s always something that is front and center in our mission. We are always interested in receiving applications from diversity as defined by race, gender and religion. But also disability, veterans, and LBGTQ. We have been seeing that uptick over the last couple years.

How has the job market been for your graduates? Is it getting better?

Our graduating classes are at virtually full employment. The market is getting stronger. The New York law firms are definitely expanding the size of their summer programs and they increased salaries for this upcoming summer as well. So, that’s a definite uptick. When you look to New Jersey, we are also seeing stronger hiring. The other thing I see is more people coming to law school to go into business or entrepreneurship or to work on Wall Street. So, we’re very aware and think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to look at legal education as a preparation for business.

Has the 2015 merger of New Jersey’s other two law schools — Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden — affected you in any way?

We have not seen an impact or anything affect us as a result of the merger. Yes, Rutgers and Seton Hall Law frequently have students who apply to both schools and the New York schools. We frequently accept the same students and those students figure out which school they want to attend. We are obviously in the same space.

Are you trying anything else new to make up for the drop in the number of people who want to be lawyers?

One of the things that’s going on in the legal world are the emerging new legal professions, which may or may not be populated by lawyers. You have the entirely new fields of compliance, enterprise risk management, privacy officers and cyber security officers. So, we have a master’s degree for non-lawyers that provides people with the legal training they need for these positions in regulated industries. For example, a forensic accountant might be working in the compliance department and is a CPA. But, we would provide the legal education about the laws that govern the industry that person is working in, so they marry their two fields – accounting and law – for their new profession. It’s a 30-credit degree that’s completely online. We have over 225 students and that’s growing exponentially. The average age of the student is 41. That really shows how the world is changing and the legal market is changing.

What’s your best pitch for why going to law school is still a good idea?

People in so many different fields tell me that a legal education is one of the best graduate educations that you can get. It teaches you to think in a different way, to be incredibly analytical, to be good on your feet. It’s essentially all of the skills you need to be successful in any walk of life. Conscious of the fact that we have an increasing number of students who end up in the business world as opposed to practicing law, we are adding courses to the curriculum that will prepare them for the numerous walks of life and professions where they might end up. Kelly Heyboer may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @KellyHeyboer. Find her at KellyHeyboerReporter on Facebook.

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