Thomas Jefferson hopes move to new building will get it off probation

Thomas Jefferson School of Law is moving from the building that it designed and built seven years ago, to an office tower less than a mile away, in an effort to keep in compliance with American Bar Association standards.

The ABA placed the stand-alone law school on probation in November, stating it was admitting students who did not appear capable of being admitted to the bar, and that it had insufficient financial resources to operate a law school in compliance with ABA standards. The law school had to move quickly to appease the ABA and avoid a downward spiral, as an estimated 95 percent of its revenue comes from tuition, and bad news could doom applications. 

Thomas Jefferson built the $90 million building in downtown San Diego in 2011. At the time, it was perceived as the crowning achievement for a school that had once been a for-profit school housed in an old Class B office building. Officials at that time felt the building would help it better compete with the two other local schools — University of San Diego and California Western School of Law, which is also in downtown San Diego.

But the good times did not last long. Enrollment began to plummet nationwide and Thomas Jefferson took the brunt of the hit in San Diego. Its enrollment dropped from 1,066 in 2011 to 765 in 2014. 

At that time, its new dean, Thomas Guernsey, laid off 10 percent of staff and sold the building to the bondholders. That move reduced its debt from $127 million to $40 million.

The law school stayed in the building, signing a three-year lease for $5 million a year. At the time, Guernsey said the school’s debt would drop even more, to $20 million, if the lease was not renewed. He said the sale placed the school on firm financial footing. 

But enrollment has continued to drop, down to 572 students.

After this most recent move, the school said it will shift resources from rent to academic programs.

“Reduced footprint and overhead will empower the Law School to reallocate funds to provide scholarship opportunities for students — including the Law School’s comprehensive and guaranteed scholarship awards, some of which include full tuition and housing grants,” the school said in a statement. 

The old building was 305,000 square feet, of which all of it was used for the law school when it opened. In more recent years, the law school subleased part of the building to a restaurant and other tenants. But it still averaged 345 square feet per student. That was enough to place it No. 17 on preLaw Magazine’s list of the best law school buildings. 

The new space offers only 55,000 square feet of space. While much smaller, that is still close to the 100 square-feet-per-student that most institutions of higher education aim for. Based on market rate, that means the law schools is spending an estiamted $1.5 million a year in rent, compared to the $5 million it was previously spending. 

Dean Joan Bullock, who took over in July 2017, said the move will position the school as debt-free, part of its Moving Forward plan. 

“We are thrilled about taking the first step in our Moving Forwardplan with a campus that puts Thomas Jefferson School of Law in the heart of our city and community while making important investments in our students’ education,” Bullock said. 

The new building, located at 701 B Street, is in the center of downtown San Diego, and close to multiple transit options and housing. It is closer to the Central Courthouse, the California Court of Appeals, and federal court houses than the old buidling. 

The new campus’ Class-A building also aligns with the law school’s student-first vision, the school said in a press release. 

“Repositioning with smaller classes will afford students more one-on-one attention and support from faculty and administration, helping better prepare students for the practice of law from their first year through graduation,” it stated. 

The new campus will have its own entrance into the building and take up 3.5 stories of the 24-story tower. The building was build in 1982, but the new owner began renovating it in August 2017. 

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