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The Appalachian School of Law looks ahead

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Fewer and fewer people are attending law school. That nationwide shift means schools are competing for students as they try to balance their budgets. In 2004, there were 100,600 people nationwide who applied to law school. In 2013, there were just 59,400.

This is especially evident at small 'fourth tier' schools. In fact, many have had to align themselves with larger institutions just to survive.

We were contacted about the status of the Appalachian School of Law by people concerned about its future. News 5 WCYB's Samantha Kozsey visited the school and spoke to one of its board of trustees, as well as alumni, faculty and former faculty as well as legal consultants about the future of law schools specifically ASL. Just about everyone we spoke to said, this is a tough time especially for the few remaining 'free-standing' private law schools.

The Appalachian School of Law sits in an unlikely spot, in downtown Grundy, Va. The school opened its doors in 1994, with the first graduating class in 1997.

This is what we found: At the height of enrollment, there were approximately 150 students in a graduating class at ASL.

Most law schools were popping at the seams with lawyers up until about 2011, but the recession hit and the market couldn't support the over-abundance of lawyers nationwide. Many lawyers struggled to get jobs from that point on.

Since then, law schools nationwide have seen fewer people choosing that profession. Just look at the numbers at ASL:

When the school opened there were 71 students. Compare that to the incoming class for 2014 which was approximately 45, that's a 37% drop. Some estimate that number will drop even more for this coming Fall.

Even the faculty numbers have dropped from 14 full-time professors in the Spring of 2014 to eight in the fall to seven this semester, that's down 50%.

In response to the declining enrollment and the drop in faculty, ASL has entered into discussions with Emory & Henry College to see if they can work out an affiliation. Both schools hired consultants to outline the pros and cons of some type of deal. Many of the people I spoke to as we investigated this story say the location is one of the biggest obstacles for the school, but according to Mickey McGlothlin, the treasurer for the Board of Trustees, and other supporters, the law school is not leaving Grundy.

Mickey McGlothlin, ASL Board of Trustees Treasurer, "If we did affiliate, we would have to decide how that affiliation would be structured, but if we affiliated, the law school would remain in Grundy." When asked if the law school could survive, McGlothlin said, "It's survived for 18 years without an affiliation with anyone else and certainly I think it would continue to do that." McGlothlin points to a compact, which is basically an agreement between ASL and the Buchanan County Industrial Development Authority for the school not moving. It says the location of the school cannot be changed without approval from the IDA and the Buchanan County Board of Supervisors.

We spoke to several legal experts that say this compact is not binding and could be voided should the law school need to move to remain viable like through an affiliation with another school.

We spoke with the public affairs director, Dirk Moore at Emory & Henry. He says both schools have agreed to continue discussions. He says Emory & Henry needs more time to determine if affiliating with ASL makes sense for them. The Emory Board of Trustees will meet this month and this topic will likely come up, but Moore says it could be the Fall before a decision is made.

We have heard from many members of the ASL Alumni Association. Everyone we spoke to says they are worried about their school. They believe the ASL Board of Trustees isn't doing enough pro-actively to save it and may have missed opportunities in the past. They fear the school will close if something isn't done soon.

Amber Floyd Lee, ASL Alumni Board of Directors, said, "The school is tuition driven. It depends on tuition of students and if students aren't there, it doesn't have the financial resources to keep it going and a bigger issue right now is they don't have the professors to keep going."

Amber Lee says the Alumni Association is looking at all options including legal action against the board the trustees. The big concern? Is there enough money coming in to keep the school going? So we looked at the numbers and as McGlothin indicated the school reports on the IRS-990 that it does have assets.

According to the IRS, we found ASL reported in 2013 about $29 million in total assets, nearly half includes land and the buildings. Revenue has dropped from $9 million in 2010 to $6.9 million in 2013.

When asked about the schools financial situation, McGlothlin said,"We continue to raise money, we still have financial contributors and supporters and we have our tuition so we are in sound financial shape right now."

In an effort to get students in the doors (which is basically tuition), ASL has joined a growing number of law schools that are lowering their requirements. This means bringing in students who may not otherwise get into law school. For example, the average score on the law school entrance exam (the LSAT) is 150, for ASL in 2013, the average score for entering students was 144, that's the lowest it has been since the doors opened at the school.

In July 2014, the percentage of people who passed the bar in Virginia was 68% compared to 42% of ASL students that was the lowest rate for any law school located in the Commonwealth

And all those factors are important in determining accreditation status. ASL is fully-accredited by the American Bar Association. Those accredited law schools are reviewed on a periodic basis. ASL is tentatively scheduled for review in the Spring 2016.

This is a tough time for colleges everywhere. Just this month, Sweet Briar, a women's college in Lynchburg, Va., announced it was closing after 114 years.

A year ago, Virginia Intermont College closed after more than 130 years in business.

Colleges everywhere are having to rethink their future and for many it means joining forces with other schools.

Emory & Henry isn't the only school that has expressed interest in the Appalachian School of Law. We also learned there were brief conversations between people from ASL and some people at ETSU, but no formal discussion about a partnership was ever reached. ETSU spokesperson Joe Smith says there are currently no plans to have a law school and no plan to take over ASL.

We will continue to follow this story to find out what these developments mean for students, alumni, faculty and staff as well as Grundy and Buchanan County.

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