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Will UNT’s New Law School Succeed?

The new college will open in downtown Dallas during a tumultuous period for legal education.
Illustration by Jon Reinfrut

In the fall of 2014, the University of North Texas- Dallas College of Law is expected to make its long-awaited debut in downtown Dallas and welcome its inaugural class. But the fledgling law school is preparing to open during inauspicious times for legal education nationally— and a turbulent period for law schools locally. Is the opening of what will become Texas’ 10th law school and third in Dallas-Fort Worth, at a time of declining applications and an uncertain legal job market, bad timing? Or does the leadership behind UNTDallas College of Law have a vision to distinguish the school from its counterparts?

Certainly, there’s been plenty of time for such a vision to take shape. The concept of a law school in downtown Dallas has been talked about for years and, with a commitment of support from the city of Dallas, UNT’s law school received both legislative approval and the backing of the governor in 2009. An estimated $5 million in state funding was earmarked from the 2010–2011 budget, enabling UNT’s administration to take the first steps toward making the new institution a reality.

Renovations are currently under way at what will be the law school’s eventual home—Dallas’ Old Municipal Building. (Until that work is complete, the law school will initially be located at 1901 Main street, currently home to some UNT System offices and a learning center for its downtown campus.) The historic, 1914 Beaux Arts-style Old Municipal building, I which saw duty as both Dallas’ city hall and its jail, is perhaps best known as the site where Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

The leadership team behind the new law school is also set. In January 2012, UNT announced that Senior U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson Jr. would step down from his bench in the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, and become the school’s founding dean. Then, last October, Ellen Pryor—a tenured law professor at Southern Methodist University, a former assistant provost at SMU, and a nationally-renowned torts scholar— was named UNT’s associate dean for academic affairs, a post she formally assumed in January. As UNT Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Rosemary Haggett put it, “With key administration in place and the extensive renovation of our downtown home under way, our promise to the people of Texas to develop a one-of-a-kind public law school is becoming a reality.”

Yet, the realization of UNT’s foray into legal education comes at a time when law schools nationwide are reeling, and shakeups seem to be the new normal locally. The legal market was hit hard by the Great Recession, and it’s still struggling to recover. According to data from the American Bar Association, just 55 percent of the 43,735 people who graduated from U.S. law schools in 2011 were employed in full-time jobs requiring admission to the bar (as of nine months after graduation). Job prospects continue to be bleak, with one study pointing out that there were only 22,000 legal jobs created for the estimated 44,000 graduates of law schools in 2012. Lower-tier law schools have an especially challenging job, with the 20 law schools at the bottom rung of the ranking ladder reporting that only 31 percent of their graduates have law-related jobs.

In addition, those graduating from law school are more debt-burdened than ever. Members of the class of 2010, for example, carried an average of $98,500 in student debt. Those graduating from Texas’ private law schools can certainly relate. SMU’s Dedman School of Law tuition and fees runs $44,017 a year, while the Texas Wesleyan University School of Law costs $30,580 annually. Even the state’s public law schools aren’t cheap, with a year at the University of Texas School of Law setting a student back $33,162 (the cost climbs to $49,244 for non-residents).

These figures represent a steady rise in tuition and debt. According to Brian Tamanaha, author of the book Failing Law Schools and a Washington University (St. Louis) law professor who has closely studied the legal education “bubble,” private law school tuition averaged $23,000 a year, and $8,500 for public schools, in 2001. Yet by 2012 tuition had climbed to $40,500 annually, and $23,600 for public schools. Tamanaha told The New York Times recently that this continued hike in tuition and resulting student-loan debt has made law school a riskier option for aspiring attorneys.  

With such mounting student-debt loads—and sobering job prospects—it’s hardly surprising that a legal career no longer holds the appeal it once did for college grads. The Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, reports that the number of test takers has dropped by nearly 25 percent in the last two years. Nationally, applications to law schools fell 20 percent as of mid-January 2013, following a 14 percent decline reported in January 2012. If the trend continues through the last months of the admissions cycle, then law schools will have experienced a 38 percent drop since 2010—the lowest figures since 1983. A number of law schools around the country have responded to dwindling pools of applicants by reducing the size of their incoming classes. The University of Texas, for example, trimmed its incoming 2012 class to 300 students from 370.   

The legal education landscape is in flux in North Texas as well. In mid-December 2012, SMU Provost Paul Ludden announced that longtime law school Dean John Attanasio’s contract, which expires in May, would not be renewed. A search committee chaired by Albert Niemi Jr., dean of the SMU Cox School of Business, has been formed to find a successor. In February, Professor Julie Forrester—a longtime member of the SMU law faculty and a nationally recognized property-law scholar—was appointed the school’s interim dean. Neither Attanasio, who has been dean since 1998, nor SMU administrators, have commented publicly about reasons for the impending departure. But a December 2012 internal memo from Ludden to Attanasio reportedly states that it is time for someone else “to provide leadership for the challenge necessary in the current climate of legal education.”   

Attanasio’s ouster has generated heated controversy, with some alumni publicly applauding the move, while at least one member of SMU’s Board of Trustees, Les Ware, resigned in protest, and another 56 prominent SMU supporters sent a letter of protest to SMU President Gerald Turner. Even those who publicly support the change at the top acknowledge the contributions made by Dean Attanasio. Michael Boone of Dallas’ Haynes & Boone, who serves on both SMU Law School’s executive board and its board of trustees, says, “John Attanasio has been great for the law school during his 15 years there, and has done a tremendous job.”   

Nonetheless, Boone says, the decision to part ways was made “after thorough research and analysis by the provost and the president, and I’m satisfied that they followed a reasonable decision-making process. I can’t substitute my judgment for theirs.” Instead of getting bogged down in divisiveness, Boone adds, the law school and its supporters need to focus on the task at hand: the search for Attanasio’s successor. “We’re looking for someone who can build on what John did, and take SMU to the next level,” he says.   

Meanwhile, Texas A&M University announced last June that it had signed a letter of intent with Texas Wesleyan University for Texas A&M to pay $20 million and assume the ownership and operations of Texas Wesleyan’s law school in Fort Worth. Under the terms of that deal, A&M would pay an additional $5 million within 5 years; Texas Wesleyan would remain the owner of the land and actual facilities of the law school; and the two schools would enter into a 40-year lease with A&M renting the real property for $2.5 million annually.   

The newly renamed Texas A&M University School of Law at Texas Wesleyan University is scheduled to open in June 2013, contingent upon approval from several accrediting bodies.   

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp touts the acquisition of the Fort Worth school as one that would “round out” Texas A&M. Sharp has pointed to A&M’s history of producing graduates with science and technical backgrounds, well-suited for practicing patent law, and said in one news release, “We intend to fill that market and produce the best in the world.” With the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office recently selecting Dallas as one of only a few satellite offices nationwide, the potential for more intellectual-property work may create a demand for IP lawyers that a Texas A&M/ Texas Wesleyan Law School could help fill.   

Texas A&M’s move into legal education will make the once-private Texas Wesleyan a public law school. So, what does that mean for the UNT Dallas College of Law—which had hoped to fill a void by becoming the only public law school in North Texas? (Until one opens, Dallas-Fort Worth is the country’s largest urban metropolis without a public law school.) And, how does the startup school intend to distinguish itself in this turbulent climate for lawyers and legal education?   

According to Pryor, UNT’s newly-named associate dean for academic affairs, the time is right for opening a law school with UNT’s particular mission and design. Pryor says the law school’s features are “affordability, a superb education focused on practicerelated competencies, and widening access to law school for prospective law students who have the ability to become excellent lawyers but who cannot realistically access a legal education.”   

As to the affordability factor, Pryor and the rest of UNT’s leadership team recognize how critical the level of debt is. While no final decision has been made yet on tuition rates for the new law school, Pryor contends that UNT is committed to affordability, saying “We will emphasize keeping tuition low and using scholarship funds for financial need.” Affordability is closely tied to another core mission of the UNT Dallas College of Law, she says—that of expanding access “to prospective law students for whom legal education has not been a realistic option.”   

Pryor observes that law schools historically have remained out of reach for many with the capacity to become good lawyers, in part because both admissions and scholarship support “are so heavily tied to the LSAT.” The end result of embracing the concept of a more affordable, more accessible law school is a potential bonanza for the North Texas community in general, Pryor says, and for its business community in particular.   

Simply put, the new school seems to promise more diversity among the ranks of DFW lawyers, who now are mainly Anglo and male. According to fi gures from the State Bar of Texas, 24,357 (or 30 percent) of the state’s 89,987 attorneys are located in Dallas-Fort Worth. In Dallas County, those attorneys are overwhelmingly white (86 percent) and male (68 percent); the figures for Tarrant County are 89 percent and 67 percent, respectively. Just 5 percent of the attorneys in each county are African American, while 4 percent are Latino.  

In contrast, graduates of the new UNT school “will form a wider pool from which many of our community’s leaders might come,” Pryor says. “In addition, with manageable debt levels and an education focused on practicerelated competencies, our graduates can have viable practices in areas where the needs of the middle class are underserved: immigration, family, criminal, estate planning, and more. And, because our curriculum will include extensive experiential education, our students will be involved in nonprofit agencies and services.”  

In addition to being affordable and, hopefully, transparent about law-school costs and employment prospects, it is this commitment to preparing graduates for real-world practice by designing a curriculum emphasizing “practice-related competencies” that may distinguish the UNT-Dallas law school from its counterparts, more than any other factor. As Pryor observes, many law schools around the country are responding to criticism from legal employers that law graduates are woefully unprepared for actual practice by revising their curricula to emphasize more practical skills.  

New York Law School, for example, recently added faculty—many from the ranks of working attorneys—to teach classes on negotiating, counseling, and fact investigation. Boston’s Northeastern Law School, which has a history of emphasizing clinical training, witnessed only a minor decrease in its pool of applicants this year. Even elite law schools like Stanford are devoting increasing attention to “handson” training for their students. Perhaps the best example of the payoff for law schools that turn toward the practical can be found at Washington & Lee School of Law.  

In recent years, Washington & Lee drastically revamped its entire third-year curriculum to focus on case-based simulations taught by practicing lawyers in place of traditional lectures heavy on theory. As a result, the school has actually seen an increase in applications at a time when law-school applications nationally are sharply declining—proof, says noted legal education reformer William Henderson of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, that “a sizeable number of prospective students really do care about practical skills training and are voting with their feet.”  

The curriculum and teaching philosophy at UNT’s new law school, Pryor says, will emphasize real-world practicalities over the theoretical “for every student from Day One through graduation day.” UNT’s innovative approach, she adds, will include “more feedback and assessments, experiential learning, writing throughout the curriculum, finances and management of legal practice, and a curriculum mapped around competencies as well as subject area coverage.”  

The new school will likely have a day class ranging from 75 to 95 students to start, and possibly a small evening division as well, with the application process opening this fall. UNT’s fledgling school faces a multi-year process in obtaining ABA accreditation. A law school is eligible for provisional accreditation after two years, a timeline that would permit UNT’s first graduating class to sit for the bar exam. (A student graduating from a provisionally approved school is considered by the ABA and the Texas Board of Bar Examiners to have graduated from an ABA-approved program.) After obtaining provisional approval, Pryor says, it usually takes “at least three years” for a law school to obtain full approval from the ABA.  

One of the biggest questions looming over UNT’s new law school is what kind of reception it will receive from North Texas’ legal and business communities. Many leaders in both camps openly embrace the prospect of a new law school in downtown Dallas. John Crawford, president and CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc., calls the school’s opening a boost for downtown revitalization, and a move that “will allow us to add to our growing residential base, create more pedestrian traffic, provide a needed update to a wonderful historic structure preserving history and tradition, and offer an educational option that has not been previously offered.”  

Marcos Ronquillo, managing partner at Beirne Maynard & Parsons in Dallas and former chairman of the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is similarly optimistic. He describes the new law school as “very healthy, very welcome, and long overdue.” Ronquillo sees the addition of the UNT Law School as a development that will not only help address the educational needs of a long-underserved minority community, but that will also help burnish Dallas’ standing as a business mecca. “Dallas suffers from a lack of top-flight academic institutions,” Ronquillo says. “If Dallas-Fort Worth sees itself taking its rightful place in the global economy, we need to remedy that. We’re a hub for major corporate relocations, and corporations and their employees have legal needs. Having a deeper talent pool can only help.”  

Not everyone views the outlook in such optimistic terms, though. Jack Balagia, vice president and general counsel at Irving-based ExxonMobil Corp., acknowledges that, “A new school will, in the long term, occupy credible space in the North Texas economy,” and that there will always be a market in North Texas for exceptional law graduates, “whether they come from the more traditional or a more practice-oriented law school curriculum.” However, Balagia cautions that the current market for law school graduates is “perhaps the most difficult I have seen in my years of practice, and it is tough to predict if and when the market might turn around. This is a very challenging time to be in the law-school business, no matter the focus of the curriculum.”  

Despite its arrival at a watershed moment in legal education both nationally and locally, the opening of the UNT Dallas College of Law certainly has location on its side. Law schools that are regional in focus tend to have an easier time placing their graduates in areas that are thriving economically. UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson is upbeat, pointing out that “the Dallas-Fort Worth region continues to grow, and we believe that our regional population, undergraduate student population, and job growth can adequately support three quality law schools with different missions and costs.”  

Indeed, the challenge of starting a law school that aspires not to be necessarily a “Harvard on the Trinity”— but rather to produce practice-ready lawyers for North Texas and beyond—was enough to lure Judge Royal Furgeson from the prestige and security of his lifetime appointment on the federal bench. “The legal profession and the legal academy are in the midst of epic change, and how we come out at the other end will be largely influenced by how the profession and the academy join together to figure it out,” Furgeson says. “I want to be a part of that.”

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