In a recent article for City Journal, I profiled Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law, a new institution in Knoxville that offers skills-based training at a lower cost than the prevailing model of legal education. Another “alternative” law school, ostensibly with a similar mission, is the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law, which presents an interesting contrast with both LMU and conventional legal academia.
Unlike LMU, a private school serving southern Appalachia, UNT at Dallas is a publicly funded institution that targets the diverse urban population of southern Dallas County. Created by the Texas legislature in 2009 and opened in 2014, the law school occupies the historic Old City Hall building, which underwent $70 million in renovations. Notably, Dallas already had a private law school, Southern Methodist University, and its sister city, Fort Worth, boasts the Texas A&M School of Law. With UNTD, Texas now has ten law schools statewide, six of which receive state funding.
What was the Lone Star State’s rationale for opening yet another law school, at great taxpayer expense, at a time of plummeting law school applications and a challenging job market for attorneys? As Dallas, the state’s third-largest city, experienced rapid population growth and demographic change, political leaders lamented the lack of legal resources available to poor and middle-class residents. The city’s population is now majority-minority, and many residents, especially in South Dallas, are economically disadvantaged. State Senator Royce West, who has represented the city since 1992, supported opening a public institution that would train an atypical student body to provide legal services to an underserved population. UNTD has fulfilled West’s vision—its law school offers an affordable and accessible education to minorities and nontraditional students, including older working adults (the average age of students is 33). By charging lower tuition, the institution hopes that graduates unburdened by massive student loan debt will provide legal help to ordinary people unable to afford representation by high-priced firms.
The law school’s novel approach initially generated praise. Its lavishly funded facilities, central downtown location, and leadership (the founding dean is a retired federal judge) contributed to the favorable publicity. Indeed, good intentions have guided UNTD’s belief that applicants’ “grit” and “life experience,” rather than college grades and LSAT scores alone, could determine admissions decisions. This approach produced an entering class of about 150 students, a cohort ranging in age from 20 to 74—albeit thin on academic credentials.
Though UNTD Law has received an “A+” rating from The National Jurist as one of the “Most Diverse Law Schools,” its unconventional student body has raised concerns. Questions about UNTD students’ qualifications, as evidenced by low LSAT scores, led the American Bar Association to recommend against provisional accreditation. Boosting the institution’s average LSAT scores would require admitting fewer students, thus reducing tuition revenues and undercutting the primary rationale for the school’s existence: producing a cadre of practice-ready lawyers to address the community’s unmet legal needs.
The ABA ultimately reversed itself and granted provisional accreditation, but its initial instincts proved correct. When UNTD’s first graduating class took the Texas bar exam in July 2017, only 59.3 percent of the class passed, the worst results of any of the state’s ten law schools and far below than the statewide average of 72 percent. (Baylor University led, with a pass rate of 93 percent.) As the ABA Journal remarked, “Although UNT is to be commended for keeping the cost of law school as low as possible, if over 40 percent of its graduates fail the bar, it’s no bargain.” UNTD’s tuition and fees, at over $18,000 per year, are far less than other Texas schools charge, but they’re not exactly a “bargain.” While UNTD graduates’ bar results have varied since the July 2017 exam—with pass rates ranging from 40 percent to 61 percent—the school ranks consistently as one of the state’s worst performers.
At this point, it’s unclear what path UNTD will take. Royal Furgeson, the school’s founding dean, stepped down in June 2018 and was replaced by Angela Felecia Epps, former dean of Florida A&M University College of Law, a historically black institution, whose graduates, FAMU proclaims, are “champions of civil rights and social justice.” Will UNTD become an activist social-justice academy, in the mold of CUNY School of Law, another self-styled urban law school? Or will Epps lead UNTD in the direction of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, as a de facto historically black institution? Texas Southern is not an auspicious model: its graduates had the second-worst bar-passage rate in July 2017 (barely ahead of UNTD, at 63.64 percent), and since then it has anchored the cellar position, with pass rates as low as 28 percent. In any case, it’s likely that UNTD’s primary function will continue to be, as one sympathetic observer remarked, to “produce more law graduates of color and from modest origins than are turned out by the established law schools.”
Significant changes will be needed to salvage taxpayers’ enormous investment in creating and operating the UNTD College of Law. Texas contributes over $27 million a year to the law school. Skeptics rightly wonder if the concept was fatally flawed from the inception. The premise was that “nontraditional” students could be molded into affordable legal-services providers, yet barely half of UNTD’s 2018 graduates managed to find any type of full-time legal employment. In hindsight, it appears that the Texas legislature got snookered into approving this institution, with the state’s taxpayers left holding the bag.
Herein, another lesson for reforming legal education: good intentions alone don’t produce salutary results. Many aspects of the traditional academic model can be altered—reducing costs, emphasizing practical skills over theory, teaching the basics, and so forth. Lowering admissions standards to the point of enrolling students ill-equipped to pass the bar exam, however, is shortsighted and futile. Subsidizing experiments at taxpayer expense to appease powerful politicians like Senator West is a breach of the public trust.
Photo: University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law/via Facebook