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The Future of the UNT-Dallas Law School

It's in doubt after the ABA recommends against the program's accreditation.
By John G. Browning |

In the April 2013 issue of D CEO, we asked the question, “Will UNT’s New Law School Succeed?” That article came as Texas’ 10th law school was preparing to embark on the daunting task of opening Dallas-Fort Worth’s third—but first public—law school, in the midst of plummeting law school applications and an uncertain legal job market nationwide. In May 2015, our sister publication D Magazine chronicled how “The Little Law School That Could” had managed to attract students with a wide variety of life experiences, as well as support from many in the Dallas legal community. But then, in early August, the hopes and dreams of the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law’s leadership and student body were dealt a major blow with news that the American Bar Association’s Accreditation Committee had recommended that the school not receive accreditation.

The ABA recommendation came as part of a 21-page report that was sent to UNT Law Dean Royal Furgeson and UNT-Dallas President Robert Mong in mid-July, and which was formally submitted to the ABA’s accrediting body, the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, on Aug. 5. Although the accreditation process itself is confidential, Dean Furgeson received permission from the ABA to disclose the development to the school’s students. The news traveled quickly, and was soon making headlines not only locally but in state and national legal publications like The Wall Street Journal, which said the law school was “in peril.”

The reasons for the ABA recommendation against accreditation are twofold. First, the committee felt that UNT hadn’t established substantial compliance with ABA standards regarding “sound admissions policies and practices.” That meant, in essence, that the school wasn’t enrolling enough students capable of completing the requirements for a J.D. degree and passing the bar exam. It pointed out that UNT wasn’t meeting its goal of enrolling a student body with a median LSAT score of at least 150, since as of June 2016 the incoming first-year class had a median LSAT of only 148 (by comparison, the top-ranked University of Texas School of Law reported a median score of 167 for its 2015-2016 first-year class). UNT’s median LSAT for students enrolling last fall was 146, with the bottom 25 percent entering with an LSAT of 143 or below.

The report also pointed out that one-fifth of UNT’s inaugural class had been placed on academic probation, and that the school had admitted 17 students who had been dismissed (primarily for poor grades) from such schools as Thurgood Marshall School of Law and St. Mary’s University School of Law—traditionally among the lowest in bar-passage rate. The committee’s report was sharply critical of UNT’s perceived failure to attract better-performing students, saying that not only had the school not attained its goal, but also that it “does not appear to have conducted any meaningful study or examination of why it has not met its goal other than reviewing the success of the students admitted, and does not have a plan for attaining the goal.”

Furgeson contends that concerns about the school’s financial health are misplaced.

Besides its concerns about UNT’s “admitting applicants that do not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar,” the ABA committee additionally found that the law school “has not demonstrated that its present and anticipated financial resources are adequate to sustain a sound program of legal education and accomplish its mission.” Noting that the Dallas school was “heavily dependent on tuition,” the committee expressed concern over the potential decrease in the number of students if the school admitted fewer applicants in order to achieve its LSAT and undergraduate GPA admission goals. Finally, the committee noted some concerns about “the poor quality of teaching by some adjunct faculty members,” although “for the most part” it was “impressed with the quality of the teaching and the engagement of the students.”

The law school was to have a chance to respond to the negative recommendation, both with a written response and during an October hearing before the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Although the council does not comment on pending recommendations, Furgeson—a former trial lawyer and U.S. District Court judge—said he was looking forward to responding. “We will get a fair hearing,” he said. “We’ll tell the council that there’s a giant need for affordable law schools like us, and we’re going to meet that need.”

Furgeson contends that the committee’s concerns about the school’s financial health are misplaced, pointing to support from the Texas Legislature (which appropriated $56 million to renovate a building for the law school) as well as the backing of the UNT system. As for concerns over student academic performance, Furgeson says, “We know some of our students are at risk, and we want to identify them properly and give them the academic support they need.” At the same time, Furgeson is unapologetic about the students UNT admits, observing that the school looks at other criteria like work and life experience and military service. “We give careful consideration to other factors like grit and hard work that we think are indicative of their ability to get past the bar and become lawyers,” he says.

Ellen Pryor, the law school’s associate dean for academic affairs, elaborated in a statement on the TaxProf law blog that the school remains true to its vision of providing an affordable legal education to those from historically underrepresented communities. “Our student body is incredibly diverse in terms of age, race and ethnicity, and background, and we chose to make our program as affordable as practicable, with no tuition discounting,” she said. According to UNT-Dallas, nearly 52 percent of its law students last September were minorities (21 percent were Hispanic and 20 percent were African-American).

The school has indeed been practicing what it preaches. Earlier this year, UNT-Dallas opened two community lawyering centers—one in downtown and one in the Fair Park area—where its students can get hands-on experience serving the myriad real-world legal needs of underserved communities.

Even so, the ABA committee’s recommendation against accrediting the UNT law school resonates with many observers who point to the bleak picture for legal education, a national trend in declining bar passage rates, and dim job prospects for new law graduates. At the same time, law students’ debt burden remains staggering. ABA statistics show that the average debt for a public law school graduate is $84,600, while graduates of private law schools have an average of $122,158 in debt. (UNT tuition is about $15,000 annually for full-time, in-state students.)

Passing the bar exam itself remains a critical hurdle for UNT’s students, as passage rates in many states have plummeted—a result, many say, of the diminishing quality of students admitted by tuition-dependent law schools seeking to fill seats from a shrinking pool of applicants.

But will UNT’s inaugural law school class, who start their third and final year this fall, have the chance to sit for the 2017 bar exam? Furgeson was upbeat about the school’s chances before the ABA Council in October. And history appears to be on his side. A number of new law schools have received an initial recommendation against provisional accreditation, only to win accreditation later on. Regardless of the outcome of UNT’s hearing before the ABA council, the school could still petition the Texas Supreme Court for permission for its first graduates to take the bar exam. That’s the route that was taken by Texas Wesleyan Law School (now Texas A&M Law School), which won provisional accreditation in 1994 before becoming fully accredited in 1999.

The ABA committee’s decision comes at a time when the ABA itself is under scrutiny for its accreditation practices. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity recommended in June that the Department of Education suspend for one year the ABA’s ability to accredit new law schools, citing lax enforcement of student achievement standards. And in an August hearing at the ABA’s annual meeting, the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar in turn proposed toughening its standards by calling for law schools to achieve a bar-passage rate of 75 percent or risk losing accreditation. Many believe such a move would conflict with the goal of adding diversity to the legal profession.

The law students who enrolled at UNT did so with eyes wide open about the school’s unaccredited status, but they also did so hoping to better themselves and their communities. Emmanuel Obi, a Dallas lawyer and president of the J.L. Turner Legal Association, sums up the reaction of many. “It’s a disappointing decision and it impacts the students at a difficult time in their academic careers,” Obi says. “But it also illustrates the need for a more realistic view of the access to legal services for people from diverse and nontraditional backgrounds, as well as a greater focus on the pipeline that produces lawyers to fill those needs.” 

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