Illustration by Phil Foster

The Little Law School That Could

What happens when you lower tuition and admissions standards, then let cowboys and single mothers hit the books? UNT Dallas College of Law aims to find out.

The 72-year-old retired judge walked toward the lectern and stood quietly for a moment, considering how honest he should be. He looked out over the crowd of 100 would-be lawyers on the fifth floor of a beautifully refurbished department-store building in downtown Dallas. They had been invited to join the inaugural class of the city’s first public law school, the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law, though not all had decided yet whether to attend.

On that spring day in 2014, Judge Royal Furgeson Jr. began with boilerplate law speech material—a Thomas Paine quote, musings on the importance of law in a democracy. But the new law school’s dean believed these students deserved a blunt assessment of what lay ahead. They weren’t the typical 1L class of a top-tier law school, dreaming of corner offices and careers in politics and Big Law. They ranged in age from 20 to 67, and many had children, mortgages, and jobs. Most had average LSAT scores and grades. Among them were an insurance salesman, a former CPS worker, and a retired rodeo champion.

Some of you, Furgeson recalls warning them, might get up and walk out of here after you listen to what I have to say. The law school was not yet accredited, Furgeson told them. It probably would be, but he couldn’t make any promises. The school had no track record, no alumni network. And he could not guarantee a job after graduation. Law schools already were churning out more attorneys than there was work to go around. We’ll do everything we can to help you, Furgeson said. But you’re going to have to make your own way.

Nothing Ventured: Dean Royal Furgeson and Associate Dean Ellen Pryor took a chance by joining the new school. Photography by Jonathan Zizzo
Around the room, professors and lawyers, many of whom had left impressive posts to join the faculty, looked at each other with puzzlement and concern. In the quiet that followed, even Furgeson worried about his candor. But none of the students rose to leave or looked particularly surprised. They just sat there, staring back at him, already aware of their status as underdogs. Furgeson walked away from the lectern, satisfied that they understood the risks, just as he had. 

He had retired from a coveted seat on the federal trial bench—to which he was appointed for life by President Bill Clinton—to lead the new school. Furgeson is often referred to in high-powered legal circles as a “national treasure,” says Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas. The new dean chose as his second-in-command Ellen Pryor, a nationally regarded legal scholar and beloved professor from SMU’s Dedman School of Law. She taught there for 23 years before resigning in 2013 to join the UNT Dallas law school.

Many in the legal community greeted the news of their resignations with surprise. Most colleagues asked them whether the world—and more particularly, Dallas—needed another law school. The number of law school applications has been declining since 2011, and was down another 6 percent in the past year, according to the Law School Admission Council. The number of first-year law students has plunged to levels not seen since the 1970s. The reason? Rising tuition costs and a shrinking number of jobs. Many young attorneys graduate with significant debt (an average of $85,000 from public law schools and $122,000 from private schools, according to 2013 figures from the American Bar Association). As law firms scaled back during the recession, jobs became harder to come by.

Undergraduates, of course, had plenty of public options to choose from—UTD in Richardson, the University of North Texas in Denton, the University of Dallas in Irving, UT Arlington. But state Senator Royce West and other city leaders had long been vexed that Dallas was one of the only large cities in the country without its own public university. They wanted their own, and had for decades. The city chose UNT to open an independent branch in Dallas: first an undergraduate school in southern Dallas, then a law school downtown. The law school opened its doors last fall in the historic eight-story building at 1901 Main St., the former home of the Titche-Goettinger department store, two blocks from Neiman Marcus.

Aware of dwindling applications, the law school decided to start with a class of 120. School administrators hoped for 300 to 350 applications. As the deadline neared, the applications kept coming, eventually numbering a surprising 618. The school accepted 41 percent of applicants. Of those, 60 percent enrolled, and administrators decided to increase the class size to 153.

It was evidence, they believed, that a market existed in Dallas for the type of school they hoped to create.

•••

The faculty at UNT Dallas Law School would argue that it’s the perfect time to open a new school. Not one that replicates what is already being done at institutions across the country, including the tonier one up the hill in University Park, but something entirely new. A school that is less expensive—about $14,500 a year, compared to $50,000 annually at SMU, or $33,000 at the University of Texas or Texas A&M. 

Law schools have been criticized for not keeping pace with the market, steadily increasing tuition (which students pay with the help of loans), and then flooding a tight job market with attorneys who can’t earn a paycheck big enough to cover their loan payments. UNT Dallas College of Law offers a more economical degree, shaving administrative costs by hiring professors to teach, rather than conduct expensive, time-consuming academic research. The school also launched just as the American Bar Association relaxed its law library standards, allowing electronic databases for law reviews and the laws and cases of the other 49 states in place of expensive print volumes.

UNT Dallas wants to train attorneys who might go back to their own communities and provide legal services that many people can no longer afford. It is no longer financially feasible to hang up a shingle and help people with their divorces, probate, and small-business filings. The cost of law school has contributed to what Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Hecht, and many others in the legal community, warn is a dangerous, widening justice gap. “See, we’re at a strange place,” Hecht says. “We have lots of lawyers looking for jobs, and we have lots of people who need lawyers. But they can’t get together because of the cost.”

Many programs exist to help very poor people find lawyers, but the working middle class struggles to afford attorneys’ fees. It’s something Judge Tonya Parker sees routinely while presiding over the 116th Civil District Court in Dallas:  a surprising number of people attempting to represent themselves in small-business disputes. “These business owners don’t have a wide enough profit margin to put down a $5,000 retainer for a lawyer,” Parker says. “If they mess up in court, the stakes can be high.  We’re talking real money and real consequences.”

UNT Dallas’ law school believes that it can churn out a new crop of attorneys, less driven by debt, more driven by purpose. People like retired rodeo champion C.R. Moore III.

On a recent morning, Moore’s wife nudged him awake at 4:30 am. The 29-year-old walked outside his small, red brick house on six acres near Weatherford. After feeding their six horses and cleaning stalls, Moore showered, packed a sandwich, stuffed his law books into a large red backpack, and drove his Dodge pickup truck to the Trinity Railway Express in Fort Worth. He rode the 7:20 am train to Victory Station in Dallas, hopped on a DART train to St. Paul, then walked the final three blocks to the UNT Dallas law school. The round-trip commute takes him five hours every day.

“We have lots of lawyers looking for jobs, and we have lots of people who need lawyers. But they can’t get together because of the cost.”

Moore, at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, still carries himself like a man who could rope and tie a calf in less than eight seconds. After earning a rodeo scholarship to Tarleton State University, Moore majored in agricultural services and development, and worked for eight years at a county appraiser’s office. Often surrounded by attorneys at work—and several in his family—Moore decided he wanted to become a lawyer, too. 

He plans to set up a law practice back home, where he runs into neighbors while picking up 50-pound bags of horse feed at the town’s general store. “I will work at a small firm, somewhere in rural Texas,” Moore says. “Or maybe with my uncle, doing estate planning.”

By that afternoon, Moore sat among 20 students in a small classroom on the sixth floor of the law school, learning the particularities of Westlaw searches in his Legal Research and Writing class.

“Anybody having any luck?” a bespectacled professor asked. “I’ll give you one more minute before I put you out of your misery.”

A blond in the front row raised her hand. “60.5430?” she said.

The professor nodded. “Very good. So what chain did you use to get there?”

The woman, Connie Beckerley, also wasn’t a typical law student. She is 37 years old and has a 9-year-old son. Beckerley spent her youth in and out of foster homes, got a scholarship to East Texas State, then worked for eight years as a caseworker at Child Protective Services, wanting to help children like her. When she learned about the UNT Dallas law school, her dream of becoming a lawyer, and helping even more, finally seemed within reach. More than that, she felt as if she fit in among the students there, some of whom had stories like her own.

One of the school’s night students, Joe Flores, said he graduated at the top of his class at L.G. Pinkston High School, then struggled to afford his undergraduate tuition at Texas A&M. He dropped out after getting his girlfriend pregnant and returned home to West Dallas. He enrolled in community college and became the first person in his family to graduate. He got hired at a construction company and worked his way up to supervisor, then last year enrolled in the part-time program at UNT Dallas College of Law.

Life has tossed plenty of roadblocks into these students’ paths, but they keep coming back, hoping for more.

•••

Heartwarming stories aside, the UNT Dallas College of Law has taken a gamble on these students, many of whom have not excelled academically. Law school is not easy. The faculty has tweaked its curriculum in hopes of creating a better learning environment. For instance, instead of using one high-stakes exam at the end of a course, which often determines a student’s entire grade at other law schools, the law school is using regular tests to see whether students are grasping the material. If not, they can course-correct along the way. 

That’s just one reason why launching a new school is more work than anyone involved imagined. Sometimes Royal Furgeson, now 73 years old, sits in his office wondering, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” That’s when he rises from his desk and goes in search of students, all of whom he seems to know by first name. He knows their stories, and where they’re from, and their children’s names, and he knows that their fate, in part, rests in how well he and his faculty are able to pull this off.  

The school must gain accreditation from the American Bar Association, which could happen provisionally in 2016. (Once a school is granted provisional accreditation, the full approval process takes at least three years.) The school also needs millions of dollars in state funding to build adequate space for its programs, and is in the process of taking over the former city hall and courthouse, located just a half-block away. The historic granite and limestone building would lend a sense of grandness to the school. Exterior renovations, funded by the city of Dallas, are already underway. Senator West has been working on securing state funding and believes “we might cross the finish line this year.” 

But the biggest indication of success will be how many students pass the bar, as early as 2017.

In the meantime, many judges and lawyers around town are pulling for the school. Many—like Harriet Miers, the former chief counsel to President George W. Bush—connect to what the school is trying to do on a personal level. She decided to attend SMU law as a young woman after an attorney helped extricate her mother from a dire financial situation, at a reasonable rate.  

“We all recognize that the current justice gap is unacceptable,” Miers says. “All of our bar leadership, and our courts, and our law schools are hard at work on this issue. Whatever the new law school can do to help with this problem will be cheered.”

Groups of judges and attorneys often are invited for informational lunches at the new law school. After one recent lunch, Furgeson received an envelope in the mail stuffed with donations. The group that visited had taken up a collection for the school’s scholarship fund, tallying $3,450. The school’s well-connected leaders have already placed students in law offices around town for internships—with prosecutors, public defenders, and the city attorney’s office.

When Parker, the Dallas state district judge, hired her first intern for the summer, she chose a student from UNT Dallas law school. She often gives talks as part of the Dallas Bar Association’s continuing legal education program at the Belo Mansion, and for months had been surprised by how many students from UNT Dallas law school attended, getting to know many of them.

“I think that other law students in the area should be put on notice,” Parker says. “This group of students has a lot of life experience. They are hungry. They are not to be underestimated.”

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