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The Legal Limit

Texas produces more law school graduates than it has jobs for. But that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from proposing that the state build a new law school in the Valley.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito

Texas produces more law school graduates than it has jobs for. But that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from proposing that the state build a new public law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

Supporters of a new school say there is geographic inequity. The nearest public law school to the state’s southernmost region is more than 300 miles away, at Austin’s University of Texas School of Law. The Rio Grande Valley also has one of the lowest lawyer-to-citizen ratios in the state.

Before the legislative session even began, two Valley lawmakers filed bills to create a new school. State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, said he was not naïve enough to think that the current Legislature would spend millions on a new law school when it is facing a budget shortfall of as much as $27 billion, but he wants to try to keep the issue from being “sent to the back of the line.” The other sponsor, state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, said that even if the school is initially not funded, “I’m not looking at leaving here without one.”

Even if the state was not facing a massive budget shortfall, making the case that the state needs another law school poses a significant hurdle: who would hire the graduates? In 2009, Texas’ nine law schools produced a total of 2,340 graduates. And 1,837 lawyers passed the 2009 Texas bar exam. The Texas Workforce Commission estimates that there will only be about 1,660 lawyer job openings in each of the next five years.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which monitors the state’s higher education needs, also questions the idea. Last fall, it released a study on the feasibility of establishing new law schools and concluded that the current number is more than sufficient to meet current and near-future needs. If lawmakers still want to increase the number of law school slots, existing institutions should expand course offerings and class sizes, the board recommended.

Of course, lawmakers have ignored the board’s advice in the past. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, won approval for a new public law school in his district in 2009. He said he appreciated the agency’s diligence but that “sometimes, we as legislators don’t always think they are right.”

The coordinating board also found little evidence that establishing a public law school encourages local students to apply. For example, only 2.6 percent of all Texas law students come from the Panhandle region, which has a law school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. South Texans, meanwhile, account for 3.6 percent of all law students in the state.

The coordinating board’s study also noted that a law school in a South Texas city like Brownsville could help correct disparities in the state’s legal community, which — unlike the state — is overwhelmingly made up of white males.

“Strictly from an economic standpoint, do we have enough lawyers to act as general counsels to corporations and work on civil matters? Maybe we do,” said Lucio, a lawyer by trade. “But we are deficient in other areas like family law, criminal law and immigration law.”

Ultimately, it may be the state’s own deficiency in cash that holds up such a school. According to the coordinating board, the cost over five years of beginning a brand new law school: $80,484,345.

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Higher education State government 82nd Legislative Session Armando "Mando" Martinez Eddie Lucio III Royce West Texas Legislature