Let’s back off 10 feet and look at both the nose and the tail of this rat now gnawing at the city’s new downtown law school. The University of North Texas Dallas College of Law (DCL), about to begin its third year of operation, is threatened with non-accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA). In the world of law schools, that would be the death penalty.
It's simple. It's bad. The Texas Board of Law Examiners will not allow a candidate to take the bar exam in Texas, a requirement for becoming a licensed lawyer, unless the candidate has completed the required coursework at an ABA-accredited law school.
The forward end of the problem is captured in the headline of a recent Dallas Morning News editorial urging the ABA to relent and insisting that the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law must be freed to pursue its “audacious, but absolutely vital, mission.”
And that is? Both the News and the dean of the 2-year-old institution tend to talk around the point with a lot of fussy euphemism, but clearly from its very start the school’s special mission has been to produce more law graduates of color and from modest origins than are turned out by the established law schools.
It’s hard to argue with that goal in Texas, where Bar Association members are 81 percent “Caucasian,” according to the ABA, while non-Hispanic whites make up only 43 percent of the population of the state.
A formal decision by the ABA later this fall to deny accreditation to DCL would mean that graduating third-year students the following summer would not be allowed to sit for the bar exam — a stiff and maybe fatal blow to the school’s credibility and marketability.
Obviously when the school’s academic problems are viewed in the light of its stated goal of diversity, then a decision by the ABA to deny accreditation can be cast as a blow against social justice, which is sort of what the News did and the school’s leaders have done in their public statements so far.
But, wait. What about the tail-end of the problem? The ugly end. DCL is about to enroll its first class of third-year students, raising total enrollment to about 360. That’s 360 hard-working students who have been scraping up about $15,000 a year in tuition and costs, many if not most of them working at jobs and many with families, toiling in the earnest hope of becoming lawyers and making better lives for themselves and their loved ones.
What kind of terrible fraud will they have suffered if it turns out the school and the people who run it weren’t good enough stewards to deliver them a chance even to take the bar exam, let alone pass it? And remember that this law school was opened in spite of overwhelming evidence of a lawyer glut in the nation.
The ABA didn’t start cracking down on law schools on its own or out of some stirred sense of professional conscience. The ABA has been cracking down because the public, the federal government and angry unemployed law school graduates began six years ago accusing law schools of running a national scam.
The truth may have been more tragedy than scam. In 2010 when law school enrollment reached a historic high, the full effect of the George W. Bush recession finally was rolling into the big law firms and they were heaving lawyers down the elevator shafts.
Things have gotten better for the legal profession since then. The ABA has reported that 59.9 percent of 2014 law school graduates eventually found their way to jobs requiring passage of the bar exam, but that still leaves four out of 10 who did not. And those are law school graduates, for the most part, who came out of long-established schools, many of them with a lot of debt.
None of this is to say that DCL won’t be able to persuade the ABA to change its mind and grant some provisional level of accreditation good enough to get the class of 2017 into the bar exam. Other new law schools facing similar hurdles in their start-up years have overcome them.
The question for DCL is going to be whether its problems are mere growing pains or something more baked-in and fundamental. The ABA doesn’t comment on its recommendations, but DCL Dean Royal Furgeson Jr. has been doing a good deal of talking, including some remarks he made to the Morning News revealing some of what the ABA is most worried about at Furgeson’s school, especially the school’s decision to admit so many students with low scores on the law school admission test, or LSAT.
“The ABA has said that if we take students with higher LSAT scores, we won’t get as many students, and we’ll have financial problems,” Furgeson told the News.
Let’s roll back over that page a couple times and make sure we’ve got it flattened out properly. DCL has been admitting a lot of students whose low LSAT scores would have kept them out of many established law schools. That’s how DCL got its enrollment up to 360.
The tuition paid by those 360 students composes what the ABA obviously thinks is a significant share of DCL’s operating money. Furgeson’s remarks to the News reveal that the ABA is worried the school can’t enroll enough students to keep its doors open if it admits only those who have LSAT scores in the range required by most other schools.
Other schools require higher LSATs and always have because they think the LSAT is the most powerful indicator of a student’s ability to pass his or her courses, pass the bar exam and become a lawyer.
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Furgeson assured the News that he’ll always have enough money to run on, no matter how few students he has, because DCL is a state institution. “We’ve got muscle behind us,” he told the News, for which you can read “tax money.”
He also has been bumptious about his ability to spot talent by means other than the LSAT, often referring to tough challenges students have overcome in life. But the law happens to be one of those professions, like medicine and engineering, in which there is a great big test at the end of the road that you can’t get around, no matter what else you’ve done in life, because the test measures the basic knowledge you must possess to hang out a shingle and do the work.
If we look at both ends of this dilemma, then, it’s one or the other: Either this is the saga of the brave little law school that could, the school that dared to break the mold and did. Or it’s a truly sordid story about unprincipled and unscrupulous institution-proud politicians and fools ripping off hundreds of earnest, hard-working students.
We’ll know some of how this cookie’s going to crumble in October when DCL leaders go to the ABA national convention to plead their case. We’ll know the rest of it later when the first graduating class takes the bar exam. In the meantime, we are better prepared for either event if we take time now to look at the whole rat.