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How UNT-Dallas' Grand Law School Experiment Could Be Overruled

The University of North Texas at Dallas wants to be a different kind of law school. But could the system that it hopes to change bring it down before it fully gets up and running?

The outside of the University of North Texas System building in downtown Dallas. The building is occupied by the UNT Dallas College of Law, which is at risk of losing its accreditation.

DALLAS — In August 2014, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht stood before the incoming students of the state’s newest law school and made a proclamation: “The legal profession needs you.”

Yes, there were 95,000 licensed lawyers in Texas — more twice the number of doctors in the state, he said. And yes, many firms were cutting back on hiring, making job prospects dim. But millions of poor and middle class Texans needed legal help, and not enough lawyers were working to provide it, he said. The University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law could change that.

“We have every hope that what happens here can begin to narrow the justice gap and change our profession for the better,” Hecht said at the school’s inaugural convocation.

The school was built with those goals in mind, and it has flouted many of the conventions of traditional law schools. It has targeted diverse, working-class students, who seem serious about lives in public service. And it has avoided worrying about building up its national ranking.

But two years after Hecht’s speech — and before the 150 students who heard it have even graduated — the goal is at risk. Citing the school’s admissions policies and worries over financial stability, the American Bar Association has recommended that the law school not be accredited. If that happens, the law school's hundreds of students may not be able to practice as lawyers in Texas when they graduate.

The decision has created an existential crisis for the school. UNT-Dallas’ backers had been optimistic that it was on its way toward building something special. But now it has been caught in a regulatory process designed to prevent schools from preying on unqualified students. In a painful twist, the system that it hoped to change may bring the school down before it gets fully up and running.

“I feel like we are being judged by a different template,” said Royal Furgeson, the school’s inaugural dean. “I kind of feel like we are being pigeonholed into a category where we don’t belong. And I don’t know what to do about it.”

Not like other schools

The problems that UNT-Dallas is trying to fix are well-known, not least by the organization that handles accreditation. In 2014, the American Bar Association released a 41-page analysis arguing that law schools were too similar and too expensive. They usually use financial aid to recruit a narrow group — students with high college GPAs and LSAT scores, the analysis said. As a result, many poorer students end up finishing school with massive amounts of debt — the average for a public school graduate after three years of law school is almost $90,000.

Furgeson saw many of those problems first-hand as a federal judge. During nearly two decades on the bench, he hired dozens of law clerks. Many accumulated six-figure debt and then found themselves stuck chasing high-paying jobs. Even if they wanted to pursue public service jobs, the debt load was too burdensome to take them.

Under his watch at UNT-Dallas, the school places far less emphasis on LSAT scores, which tend to favor wealthier white students. Instead, it looks at life experience. Most of its students are older and have years of work on their résumés.

Perhaps most importantly, the school is cheap. UNT-Dallas charges less than $16,000 in tuition and fees per year, compared with $28,000 for Texas A&M University’s law school in Fort Worth and more than $50,000 for Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The goal is to create a place that was attainable for students like Taryn Ourso, who is entering her second year at the law school this fall. She didn’t make great grades in college, but admissions officers saw in her a grit that made them think she could succeed.

After growing up in the tiny Louisiana town of Addis, raised by parents who didn't attend college, her career at Louisiana State University was cut short because of Hurricane Katrina. She eventually finished her degree in chemistry at the University of Texas at Dallas.

While in Dallas, she watched someone she was close with struggle through the legal system without adequate legal representation after he was indicted for a white-collar crime. The experience inspired her to go to law school, even though she was working as a high school physics teacher with two jobs on the side. UNT-Dallas was the only place she had a chance to attend, she said.

“I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else,” she said.

Accreditation problems

But while the UNT-Dallas law school is designed to help people like Ourso, the ABA accreditation process has people like her in mind, too. One key goal of the process is to make sure colleges aren’t bilking students out of well-earned money without providing them much in return.

After reviewing hundreds of pages of documents and visiting the campus, the ABA compiled its final report on UNT-Dallas in July 2016. It seemed to approve of the school’s faculty, curriculum, library and most other issues up for inspection. But it raised one key worry: LSAT scores.

The median LSAT score for UNT-Dallas admittees is 146, which ranks it second-lowest of the 10 law schools in Texas, above Texas Southern University in Houston. At Texas A&M's law school in Fort Worth, the median score for 2015 was 156. At the University of Texas at Austin, the median was 167. 

“It appears that the Law School is admitting applicants that do not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar,” the report said.

The report also raised financial worries. If UNT-Dallas were going to raise its average LSAT score, it would probably need to admit fewer students. And because the school relied on tuition to pay its bills, that decrease in enrollment would also mean a decrease in revenue, the report predicted.

The school’s supporters were mystified. How could the ABA cite LSAT scores as a reason not to accredit when one of the problems its trying to solve is too much emphasis on LSAT scores?

Even more perplexing were the financial questions, Furgeson said. The school has state support — in 2015, the Legislature approved a $56 million bond to pay for a renovation of its future downtown headquarters — and is part of the University of North Texas System, which has an annual budget of more than $1 billion.

“If we hit a rough spot, they are behind us, and they are going to help us,” Furgeson said.

Waiting game

The ABA’s recommendation isn’t final. School officials will make one more plea to an ABA panel in October. If that panel denies accreditation, the school can re-apply, but it probably wouldn’t be able to complete the process in time for the first graduation in May 2017, Furgeson said. The school can ask the Texas Supreme Court for an exception to allow graduates to take the bar, however.

Many in the Dallas legal community support the school.

“Frankly, I'm appalled that at this stage of this effort the ABA would take this action to essentially put its thumb on the scale,” said Betsy Julian, a prominent local civil rights attorney.

But for people who closely monitor law schools, the situation is harder to read. As the executive director of Law School Transparency, an organization that advocates for the reform of legal education, Kyle McEntee has been intrigued by the efforts of UNT-Dallas. He even provided some free advice on how to keep tuition costs down as the school was preparing to open.

But he also worries about lower-tier schools collecting tuition from students who could be destined to fail.

“The trouble is, how do you distinguish among schools that genuinely care about diversity — and these issues — from the ones that are wolves in sheep’s clothing?” he said.

One sign that UNT-Dallas is different, McEntee said, is its admissions rate. UNT-Dallas admits fewer than half its applicants. That puts it among the top half of law schools in the country, suggesting that it is being selective in different ways, he said. Basically, it’s making a bet that there are students who struggle with the LSAT who would still make good lawyers.

But while the LSAT has serious problems, it does give an indication of how students fare on high-pressure standardized tests. And to be a lawyer, law school graduates must pass the state bar exam, a high-pressure standardized test. So there is some reason to be worried about the UNT-Dallas graduates, McEntee said.

“It remains to be seen whether they will be successful,” he said. “But the question is are they being given a chance, and should they be given a chance? That is what the ABA is wrangling with.”

For the UNT-Dallas students, a chance is all they want. In interviews with seven current students last week, their determination was clear. Many acknowledged that they attend a “fourth-tier” law school. But many had just completed internships in public defender's offices, federal agencies and prosecutor's offices.

And they firmly believed they can pass the bar.

“I think they are counting us out a little early,” said Ashley Wright, who graduates in 2017.

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