John G. Browning 2012-12-26 02:17:56
It was the sort of resolution that one might expect from the Dallas Bar Association during a difficult economy, as law schools all over the country churned out too many graduates, many of them ill-prepared for practice and many of them viewing Texas as the land of opportunity: “[T]he state is being flooded with young lawyers from every state in the union, many of them with little preparation for the duties that devolve upon them . . . Our bar, already overcrowded, is held out as an asylum for the lame, and the halt, and the blind from the law schools of this country. And they are coming.” Actually, this “alarm” was sounded in 1932, but it could just as easily have been written in 2012. Texas continues to feel the effects of a national legal market hit hard by a struggling economy. According to data from the America Bar Association, only 65.4 percent of the 43,735 people who graduated from law schools nationwide in 2011 were employed in jobs requiring passage of the bar (as of nine months after graduation). Among the 20 law schools at the bottom rung of the employment ladder, only 31 percent of graduates have law-related jobs. And those graduating from law school are doing so with more student debt than ever; nearly nine out of every 10 graduates came out of law school with considerable debt, with members of the class of 2010 carrying an average debt of $98,500. With such sobering job prospects, it hardly comes as a surprise that a legal career no longer holds the appeal that it once did for college graduates. The Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, reports that the number of test takers has fallen off by nearly 25 percent in the past two years. Nationally, applications to law schools dropped 13.7 percent in 2012, following a decline of 10 percent in 2011. Some law schools around the country, such as Hastings College of Law at the University of California, have responded to dwindling pools of applicants by reducing the sizes of incoming classes. Despite applications being down nationwide, tuition at Texas’ nine law schools is higher than ever. Among public law schools, the University of Texas School of Law is charging $33,162 annually for tuition and fees for full-time entering students who are Texas residents (the cost climbs to $49,244 for non-residents). Texas Tech University School of Law charges $22,518 a year ($32,148 for non-residents), while the University of Houston Law Center will set a student back $29,820 annually ($39,771 for non-residents). Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law runs $16,446 for in-state students (while non-resident tuition and fees is $21,396). Texas’ private law schools can be pretty steep as well, with Baylor Law School topping the list at $46,420, while Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law costs $44,017 a year. St. Mary’s University School of Law is $30,566 annually, South Texas College of Law runs $27,000, and Texas Wesleyan University School of Law is $30,580. Without a doubt, the two biggest stories in Texas legal education in 2012 were the acquisition of Texas Wesleyan University School of Law by Texas A&M University, and the continuing progress of the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law — two developments that hold implications for the other. In late June, it was announced that Texas A&M University System and Texas Wesleyan University had signed a letter of intent for Texas A&M to pay $20 million and assume the ownership and operations of Texas Wesleyan’s law school. The deal calls for Texas A&M to pay an additional $5 million within five years, with Texas Wesleyan remaining the owner of the land and actual facilities of the law school (while offering a 40-year lease under which Texas A&M would rent 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 accrediting bodies: the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (which gave its preliminary authorization in September 2012), the American Bar Association, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Under the deal, which had apparently been in the works since October 2011, the now-private law school would become a public law school. Texas A&M and Texas Wesleyan intend to offer a joint MBA/JD program, as well as a program under which students can earn their undergraduate degree and their law degree in six years, instead of the typical seven years. John Sharp, Texas A&M System chancellor, touted the acquisition as one that would “round out” the tier-one research university, saying, “A law school is a professional school that’s extremely important to any university, particularly one [that is] No. 1 in research in the state.” Why get into the law school market at a time when recent graduates are facing uncertain job prospects and massive student loan debt? Pointing to Texas A&M’s history of producing graduates with science and technical backgrounds, well-suited for practicing patent law, Sharp says, “We intend to fill that market and produce the best in the world.” With the prospect of Texas A&M operating what would be the first public law school in North Texas, the implications for the fledgling UNT Dallas College of Law remain to be seen. Having received legislative and gubernatorial approval in 2009, and an earmarked $5 million in state funding from the 2010–2011 budget, UNT’s foray into legal academia is scheduled to welcome its first students in fall 2014. The law school will initially be located at 1901 Main St. in downtown Dallas (current home of some UNT System offices and a learning center), but plans call for its eventual home to be Dallas’ Old Municipal Building, which once served as both city hall and jail. The historic Beaux Arts-style building, built in 1914, is perhaps best known as the site where Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Rosemary Haggett, the UNT System’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, says that the school is aiming for an initial class of 95 to 100 students. The UNT at Dallas College of Law’s leadership is already in place. In January, it was announced that Senior U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson Jr. would step down from his Northern District bench in spring 2013 and become the school’s founding dean. In October, Ellen Pryor, a professor of law and former assistant provost at SMU, was announced as UNT’s associate dean for academic affairs, effective January 2013 (Michael Schwartz, a Washburn University law professor who had previously been named to that post, withdrew for “personal reasons,” according to a UNT press release). According to Vice Chancellor Haggett, “With key administrators in place and the extensive renovation of our downtown home underway, our promise to the people of Texas to develop a one-of-a-kind public law school is becoming a reality.” JOHN BROWNING is the administrative partner of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, L.L.P., in Dallas. He handles civil litigation in state and federal courts in areas ranging from employment and intellectual property to commercial cases and defense of products liability, professional liability, media law, and general negligence matters. He also serves as an adjunct professor at SMU Dedman School of Law, where he teaches the course “Social Media and the Law.”
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