In 2009, Dean Patricia White of the University of Miami Law School sent the following letter to accepted students:
"Perhaps many of you are looking to law school as a safe harbor in which you can wait out the current economic storm. If this describes your motivation for going to law school, I urge you to think hard about your plans and to consider deferring enrollment ... It is very difficult to predict what the employment landscape for young lawyers will be in May 2012 and thereafter."
According to the Law School Admissions Council, there was a 13.3 percent increase in LSATs taken in 2009-2010--171,514, up from 151,398 in 2008-2009. And it makes anecdotal sense, considering the glut of unemployed 20-somethings who turned to law school as a "practical investment" while they slogged through the recession. But this jump came at a time when the legal profession was bleeding jobs--dropping from 1.196 million in 2007 to 1.103 million in 2010. According to an article on slate.com, a student from Boston College Law School even penned the following open letter to the school's administration, pleading for tuition reimbursement:
"This will benefit both of us ... I'll be able to provide for my family without the crushing weight of my law school loans. On the other hand, this will help BC Law go up in the rankings, since you will not have to report my unemployment at graduation to U.S. News ... In today's job market, a J.D. seems to be more of a liability than an asset."
Apparently, the horror stories about young lawyers graduating with massive debt and few, if any, job prospects are starting to sink in. In 2010-2011, there was a 9.6 percent dip in the number of LSATs taken, prompting the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog to pose the question, "Are college graduates increasingly doubting the long-held notion that a law degree is a certain path to financial stability?"
In Idaho, apparently not.
Boise will soon be home to not one, but two, new law schools: Concordia University Law School and the Boise branch of the University of Idaho College of Law.
"The Boise area is one of the four largest metropolitan service areas in the country without an ABA-approved law school within driving distance," explained Concordia Law School Dean Cathy Silak, citing a figure from the school's promotional materials. "Many students in the Treasure Valley who wish to become attorneys, they never have that capability. They either redirect their educational goals or they do have to move out of the area."
Concordia is a private Lutheran university system with 10 locations spread across the country. Concordia University, located in Portland, Ore., announced its plan to open a law school in Boise in late 2007. The school's main two-story, 17,000-square-foot LEED-certified building and adjacent three-story classroom and office building went up in a flash at the corner of Front and Fifth streets, snow-covered scaffolding and rebar blossoming into bright red brick and sleek glass this spring. If things continue to go according to plan, Concordia will officially open its doors to students in little more than a year.
"The progress is coming along very well. The construction schedule is on target," said Silak. "We think that we'll be able to have some staff move into the building in late summer or early fall. We're projecting, and we're hoping that we can enroll that class for the fall of 2012."
According to Tamara Martinez-Anderson, assistant dean for admissions and marketing at Concordia, the school saw an unmet demand for law education in the Northwest region.
"One of the things that was really apparent to us when the decision was made to come to Boise was that there is a high need for another law school in this region ... If you look at the six states that surround us, three of them only have one law school: Montana, Wyoming and Idaho," said Martinez-Anderson.
Data released from the LSAC cites three regional schools--Brigham Young University, University of Utah and Washington State University--as being among the top 240 American Bar Association feeder schools, with BYU ranking 11th in the nation.
"You have three schools within this region sending such a high number of students on to law school, and yet when you look at schools like University of Idaho, University of Utah, BYU, they're denying a lot of their applicants because they simply don't have room for them ... The University of Utah received an excess of 1,200 applications, but their incoming class is about 130 students," explained Martinez-Anderson.
Concordia, which has already received 1,400 direct inquiries and plans to admit 75-95 students to its opening class, will also focus recruitment efforts locally. The school hopes to provide educational opportunities for Treasure Valley residents who are unwilling or unable to relocate.
"We want to first serve anyone who's here in Boise who has had a desire and interest in going to law school," said Martinez-Anderson. "Their credentials will be important because we don't want to admit anyone to law school who doesn't have the skills and academic background to be successful. But there are a lot of individuals who are place-bound, who have made a decision to make Boise their home, and they're not in a position where they can pick up and move across the state or outside the state."
This growing demand for a law school--both regionally and in the Treasure Valley--hasn't been lost on the University of Idaho. The state's only current law program, located in Moscow, is also making plans to expand to Boise, where it hopes to open a second three-year law school. According to the U of I's website--which humorously assures students this "is not a transitional mechanism for moving the college"--the two-location school will function like this:
"In the future, the College of Law would enroll an initial first-year class of approximately 30 students in Boise. The size of each entering class in Boise would increase gradually until it reached approximately 85 students, creating a total student body in Boise of approximately 250. Enrollment at Moscow would be managed to converge at approximately the same level, creating a balance of faculty and students at each location."
The U of I is considering the old Ada County Courthouse building situated between the Supreme Court and the Idaho Statehouse--dubbed the Idaho Law Learning Center--as a leading possibility to house the second branch of the University of Idaho College of Law, the Idaho State Law Library, the Idaho Supreme Court judicial education offices and law-related civic education programs for the public. Though the U of I College of Law has yet to go before the State Board of Education to obtain full approval for its proposed Boise branch, it has received more than $1.5 million in private donations for building renovations.
"We would grow the program to its projected size by about 2017," explained College of Law Dean Don Burnett. "But I think we will propose to the State Board that we will start the three-year program as soon as the old Ada County Courthouse is renovated and ready to receive us, which will probably be about two years from now."
As part of its expansion into the Treasure Valley, U of I recently began a third-year law program, which allows students to wrap up their final year in Boise. The program is headquartered in the Idaho Water Center building at the intersection of Front Street and Broadway Avenue.
On May 2, the first 29 students to complete the U of I's third-year program donned their caps and gowns and officially sauntered across the stage at the Boise Centre. Grad Nate Fowler, a transplant from Lansing, Mich., studying tax law, said the opportunity to finish his degree in Boise gave him a professional leg up.
"We went from the classroom and reading books all day to actually doing lawyering," said Fowler. "I think just being in Boise made that transition definitely more distinct for me ... It's really prepared me to get out and practice."
In addition to participating in a legal clinic that offers free help to low-income taxpayers, Fowler was able to rub elbows with Boise law professionals, something his classmates in Moscow tend to miss out on because of the school's location.
"One of the other things we were able to do is attend bar section meetings ... I was able to go to a bunch of those meetings and actually network with practicing attorneys and talk about recent tax-law issues," said Fowler. "All the meetings are down here, so unless you're down here, you can't really attend those."
As the state's legislative and legal capital, Boise is the natural Mecca for law students seeking internship, externship and mentorship prospects. Both U of I and Concordia have been feverishly reaching out to members of Boise's legal community to form future partnerships.
"There are so many law firms and legislators and other opportunities--government sections like prosecuting attorney's offices, public defender's offices," said Assistant City Attorney Jodi Nafzger, a member of Concordia's Dean's Advisory Council. "This law school is going to be able to provide those agencies with externs, interns, mentees. So I think that's one of the big boons to the lawyer community in Boise."
Karen Gowland, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary at Boise Inc., is a U of I School of Law grad who did her summer associate internship at Boise Cascade and has been with the company ever since. Gowland hopes these new law programs will increase the flow of qualified student intern candidates.
"I do think that it makes sense, from an employer's standpoint, that there will be more interns, externs, etc," said Gowland. "We have been fortunate to have a number of U of I externs and interns over the years, and we've always been really pleased with the quality and what they bring to our environment."
Merlyn Clark, a partner at Hawley Troxell, Ennis and Hawley LLP and former U of I College of Law grad, agreed with Gowland.
"I think it's beneficial to the community, to the students to have a second branch here in Boise ... it provides the students an opportunity to practice with government agencies and others like court clerks, the Attorney General's Office, the Prosecutor's Office."
In addition to infusing the local legal community with more free student labor, both law schools also plan to operate clinics that will offer legal help to low-income residents. The University of Idaho is currently running two clinics at its third-year program--the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic and the Small Business Legal Clinic--and plans to offer more in the future.
"Our motto is we're free but slow," said U of I's Associate Dean for Boise Programs Lee Dillion, laughing. "We're a teaching clinic. We don't hold ourselves out as what we'd call a service clinic."
Concordia's legal clinic is still in its planning phases, but Dean Silak noted that it will be supervised by a faculty member and accessible through a public entrance.
"Right now, we're thinking of this as a clinic for persons who really cannot afford legal services for a variety of issues ... We've already talked to a couple different agencies who provide services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as to the Idaho Legal Aid society ... We're forging some very good alliances within the community so that our students can both be of service and have hands-on learning opportunities," said Silak.
Idaho Legal Aid--a nonprofit that employs around 20 attorneys to handle low-income cases across the state--recently made headlines for being the only Legal Aid program in the country that doesn't receive state funding. It will now begin shuttering its offices on select days to save money. According to Christina King, who works closely with Legal Aid as a court advocate manager at the Women's and Children's Alliance, student legal help could be an incredible asset to Idaho's overworked and underfunded nonprofit legal system.
"We just don't have the number of attorneys that we need to take on the cases that we have, and I think part of it has to do with the fact that our clients are victims of domestic violence, and some of those cases can be very messy or sticky or time-consuming," said King. "So it's just a matter of convincing someone to take on a case where they may have a lot more hours than they initially anticipated. Having a law school come in, this would be a way for them to get their feet wet, to really experience some of the things that are out there and maybe provide volunteer services in the future, if it's something that they like."
With a demonstrated need for student legal help in Boise's nonprofit and professional legal communities--and an apparent demand for law education among area students--it's a wonder why other state universities haven't developed law programs in the Treasure Valley before now. This, Dillion explained, all comes down to the Idaho State Board of Education.
"They don't want public dollars to be poorly spent or to be spent inefficiently ... They don't want University of Idaho, Boise State and Idaho State all trying to offer the exact same program in the exact same location," said Dillion.
"The College of Law is the only college of law in the state of Idaho that's funded by public dollars, and so we have a statewide mission. Boise State and ISU are effectively told, 'As long as the University of Idaho is fulfilling its statewide mission, both in terms of education and outreach, we don't want you duplicating that program.' And it makes a lot of sense ... [Boise State gets] the advantage of having a law school located here in the valley, working with them, working with their programs, but we know how to run a law school and we'll continue to do it," said Dillion.
U of I's third-year program has forged an agreement with Boise State for students to share the Broncos' recreational and student health facilities. It also offers a concurrent J.D. and Masters of Accountancy-Tax program with Boise State and plans to offer a joint J.D. and MBA program soon.
"Everybody worries about football, but in reality, these university units are really cooperating at really deep levels," said Dillion.
Silak also hopes that Concordia and U of I will be able to forge partnerships once both institutions are in full swing.
"Hopefully once we get up and rolling, we can have some collaboration with them in terms of maybe some shared programs--bring in one specialized professor," said Silak. "I think that's several years down the road but certainly the proximity offers that as potential."
While Dillion is open to collaboration between the two new law schools, he's a bit more tentative.
"Until they're actually functioning and approved by the [American Bar Association], there's probably not a lot that we can do in terms of joint programming," said Dillion. "They've got a regulatory process, they've got to hire faculty, they've got to design curriculum, they've got to recruit students, they've got a lot of work ahead of them. Building the building is the easy part. So, when and if they get up and operational and they're offering programming, I'd imagine that we'd do the same thing that law schools do in any urban environment, in that there are natural areas of cooperation."
Neither three-year law program will be ABA-approved when it opens, but both are required to achieve provisional accreditation before students can sit for the Idaho State Bar exam. The number of ABA-approved law schools has grown 9 percent over the last decade and now numbers around 200. According to ABA guidelines, before a school can receive provisional accreditation, a site team of ABA representatives must first critically evaluate the program by attending classes, meeting with staff and talking with state bar members.
"Obviously we cannot assure any student that we will definitely achieve that accreditation, so we would be working with the State of Idaho and any other state where the students wanted to take the bar to try to create a waiver system for them to try to take the bar exam," said Silak.
Students enrolling in U of I's third-year law program, in fact, had to gamble on whether it would obtain accreditation.
"We didn't know until we were actually down here that we were accredited, so everybody that came down here, we were just hoping. We had our fingers crossed," said Fowler.
Diane Minnich, executive director of the Idaho State Bar Association, is optimistic that Concordia is on the path to accreditation.
"I just can't imagine that they won't be provisionally accredited, given everything I know they have done to meet those accreditation standards," said Minnich. "It's a difficult process and they have met with the ABA numerous times. They know exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it."
But once both law school programs are fully housed, staffed and accredited, that's where their paths will likely diverge. Tuition--and the subsequent student-loan burden--will be a factor setting the two schools apart.
"Over the long term, if you look 20 years from now when Concordia is accredited, it will be interesting to see how students choose between the two schools and whether there is competition or if they each have their own focus and are meeting a niche part of the legal market," said Gowland.
To keep tuition competitive, Concordia is currently seeking scholarship funding.
"Private law schools are typically a lot more expensive than public law schools, and we want to really narrow that gap as much as we can, so we've been raising funding for scholarships," explained Martinez-Anderson. "Tuition hasn't been set officially--nationally, tuition for a private school is now nearing about $35,000 and our goal is to keep it well below that, so we're looking more in the range between $20,000 and $30,000."
The University of Idaho's College of Law currently costs $12,940 a year for in-state tuition and $24,532 for out-of-state. According to U of I data, the class of 2010 had a starting salary average of $50,683. But those stats can be misleading.
"The salary data, it tends to show two clusters: There are clusters of entry-level compensation available to young lawyers who go into either the public sector or public interest work ... and then there's another cluster, which is a narrower cluster of individuals who go to work in law firms or in businesses, usually in large metropolitan areas, where salaries are higher ... Some law schools, and we've tried to be careful not to fall into this, will quote what the average salaries are ... but almost nobody is in the average or the median, instead they're in one cluster or the other," said Burnett.
The salary range for that same class is much more dramatic, spanning from $25,000 on the low end to $115,200 on the high.
"We have a great concern that sometimes people will chose law school thinking that they're going to be average or above in earnings. Eventually they will get there, but coming right out of law school, they have to be very careful about the amount of debt that they carry," said Burnett. "That's one of the arguments, frankly, in favor of public legal education."
Which brings us to the job market for lawyers in Idaho. Many in the legal community have expressed a need for more well-qualified lawyers in Boise, emphasis on well-qualified.
"I think there's always a need for more well-qualified lawyers. The danger, and it was always a concern, is if you have three law schools you will dilute the quality of the students," said Clark.
According to Minnich, there are currently 5,500 lawyers licensed in Idaho, in some form or another, of which 2,486 graduated from U of I. These two new law programs will increase the number of lawyers in the state, she said, but not by as much as one might think.
"People assume that if you open a law school, you're going to have lots more lawyers flooding the market. In Idaho, I'm not sure that's true because I think that some of them won't practice here, some of them won't practice at all," said Minnich.
Burnett echoed that statement. Not everyone who obtains a law degree will go on to become a trial lawyer, he explained.
"One important thing to remember is that nationally about 30 percent or so of people who get J.D. degrees do not go into the traditional practice of law," said Burnett.
Whether these new grads go on to head nonprofits, become CEOs at local companies or run their own practices, Dillion insists that law school will give them a leg up.
"With a law degree ... you've honed your critical thinking skills so that you can go into all these different industries and be productive and be valuable even if you never really practice law," said Dillion. "We think this market needs more of those kinds of people as well."