Turning a blind eye to law school recession

Turning a blind eye to law school recession

Turning a blind eye to law school recession
September 03
22:49 2014

Samantha McDonald / Staff Writer

In the heart of downtown Dallas resides legal education’s newest concrete addition, the UNT Dallas College of Law. Its launch is one of irony and concern; the Law School Admission Council reported this year that the number of law school applicants have fallen by more than 37 percent across the nation since 2010, a statistic confirmed by the college’s dean, former U.S. district judge Royal Furgeson.

Despite this decline, Dallas’ only public law school bravely opened this fall, receiving more than 600 applications instead of the anticipated 300. Faculty members originally planned for a class of 120 students, but the sheer number of applications coupled with the many qualified candidates allowed the college to host 153 students – 89 during the full-time day program and 64 during the part-time evening program.

“The demand for a law school here was really high, and so we’ve really bucked the trend,” Furgeson said. “Everybody else is looking at declining enrollment or applications. We got a lot more than we ever expected.”

The surge can be attributed to the college’s competitive tuition rates. While the national average for a public law education as reported by the American Bar Association sits at nearly $24,000, the UNT Dallas College of Law costs as low as $12,540 annually per student. This figure is possible due to the college’s ability to control costs with the goal of widening access to legal education to students of different backgrounds and ages. As a result, the average age of the inaugural class is 33 years old, with the youngest student at 20 years and the oldest at 67.

“That diversity in our student body is useful for preparing people for practicing law and serving their community,” said Tricia Magel, director of marketing and communications at the UNT Dallas College of Law. “We believe that those students bring life experiences in the classroom with them that enrich the educational experience for everyone.”

Another reason could be the innovative curriculum with which students are taught. Instead of the traditional single end-of-term exam, the college offers both summative assessments such as comprehensive testing and formative assessments through written assignments and periodic quizzes that foster interaction between professors and students. Also available at the college is experiential education programming, a method of learning that promotes students’ pro bono work through community engagement placements. In addition, students are placed in small groups under a common interest, assisted by practicing attorneys to provide solutions to issues tackled in a mentoring program. This form of experiential education is a fresh approach to developing knowledge in doctrinal law courses as well as learning practical skills, Magel said.

Humble beginnings

For whatever may be the cause, the UNT Dallas College of Law seems to be meeting one goal after another, surpassing expectations and putting to rest the notions of a failing future in legal education. These hopes were hardly certain five years ago when the legislation was passed to create the college at a turbulent time in the field. Setting aside $5 million of the state’s 2011 budget, the foundation of Texas’ tenth law school was headquartered in the recently renovated Universities Center of Dallas building on Main Street, now called the UNT System building. To the right stands the Elm Loft Apartments and to the left is the historic Municipal Building, which is widely recognized as the site where Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald following Kennedy’s assassination. Residential units are also in development across the Main Street Garden Park that faces the college and will provide potential students and faculty members the option to live a mere stone’s throw away from campus.

“These four projects, if you will, are considered the cornerstone of revitalizing the east side of downtown Dallas,” Magel said.

Although the UNT Dallas College of Law is the largest tenant at the UNT System building, it shares classrooms on the third and fourth floors with the Universities Center of Dallas, through which classes are offered from Texas A&M University-Commerce, The University of Texas at Arlington and UNT. The law school also occupies the entire fifth and sixth floors as well as part of the space on the first and second floors. Among the building’s notable facilities are the courtroom and the law library, both of which aid students’ collaborative learning under the instruction of seven accomplished full-time faculty members.

While required and elective courses span customary law subjects, the college places an emphasis on practice-related competencies, a term that describes the knowledge and skills associated with law school that is learned both inside and outside the boundaries of a classroom’s four walls. This belief, called “learning by doing,” gives students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience through their participation in clinics and externships as part of experiential education programming.

“In recent years, a national conversation has taken place among legal educators and legal professionals about ways to improve legal education,” said Ellen Pryor, professor and associate dean for academic affairs. “In designing its educational program, the UNT Dallas College of Law has drawn on many insights and findings that have emerged from this conversation.”

A community of law students

On Aug. 10, a week before students were settling into the fall semester, the UNT Dallas College of Law welcomed its inaugural class through a convocation attended by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas Nathan Hecht and state senator Royce West, among other distinguished figures, and an audience of more than 700 supporters. The event began with dean and former judge Furgeson’s introduction and concluded with Hecht administering the professionalism pledge to the students.

“Lawyers are information and knowledge professionals, and now is a time of immense change in the information world,” said Edward Hart, assistant professor and assistant dean for law library. “Thus, now more than ever, legal education should emphasize research skills, knowledge management, and information literacy.”

This approach, Magel said, can help the college achieve its three overarching goals. The first among these is to open access to more students who will no longer have to leave the Dallas area to acquire a public law school education. Another objective is to keep tuition affordable in order to minimize student debt. Lastly, the college aims to innovate the curriculum to address instructional best practices and to implement recommendations and findings that may improve legal education developed over the last decade by national authorities.

These targets may seem difficult to reach, particularly for a recently opened law school. However, after waiting more than 18 months, faculty and staff were already prepared to accept the students and commence the school year that the most demanding part of the past two weeks had no connection to the curriculum, let alone the college.

“One of the challenges that we’ve had is that the students like to use the escalators to go between the floors because it’s faster than waiting on the elevator, and we had several days when the escalator was not working between some of the floors,” Magel said. “Otherwise, I think things have gone pretty smoothly.”

Future plans

The College of Law is still seeking accreditation from the American Bar Association. This process begins when a law school applies for provisional accreditation during its second operating year. Accreditation may be granted as soon as the following year, entitling its students similar recognition to that received by fully approved law school students. As a policy, the college makes no promises to its students but is currently working toward meeting all standards as required for accreditation.

Expansion marks another plan set in motion. Renovations are anticipated to begin next year at Dallas’ Municipal Building to accommodate the growth of students and faculty following the 2014-2015 school year. The city will donate the former city hall to UNT System and pay for a portion of the renovations, along with other funding mechanisms. When construction is complete, the UNT Dallas College of Law will become a two-building campus.

Although both of these plans pose challenges to the college, the next big step involves obtaining the faculty members for the second-year class followed by the third-year class – all while remaining within budget.

“What I keep telling myself is that I shouldn’t forget how much we’ve accomplished,” Furgeson said. “We have a great faculty, we have a great staff and we have terrific students. [But] every so often, I’m still thinking about what’s next. I need to just stop and smell the roses.”

Featured Image: Dean Royal Furgeson working on his computer. The Dean was named in January 2012 before the law school opened. Photo by Dillion Jones – Staff Photographer

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