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Should Law School in Texas Be Rewarded or Punished for Unique Approach? (Perspective)

Sept. 9, 2016, 6:03 PM

Editor’s Note: The author is a law professor but not connected to the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law.

For decades, lawyers have promised to diversify our profession and to serve more low-income clients. Our actions, however, belie those promises. Law school tuition rocketed during those years, discouraging low-income students from attendance. Today’s tuition levels are especially daunting for minority students, whose families are disproportionately poor.

Compounding the problem, law schools offer most of their scholarships to students with high LSAT scores — not those with financial need. Wealthy students qualify for those scholarships by taking expensive LSAT prep courses, leaving low-income minority students further behind.

In the classroom, law schools still practice a sink-or-swim pedagogy. Students receive little feedback during the semester; most of their grades rest on a single exam. This approach allows well prepared students to succeed, but it does little to teach less advantaged students.

The same practices inhibit legal services for low- and middle-income clients. Graduates with six figures of debt are unlikely to open low-cost practices. If they do, their lack of feedback during law school, combined with a shortage of hands-on educational experiences, leaves them ill prepared to serve clients.

Several law schools have tried to remedy these problems, but none has done more than the University of North Texas at Dallas (UNT) College of Law. Opened in 2014, the school explicitly aims to widen access to legal education and to serve low-income communities. Its tuition is among the lowest in the nation. Scholarships are based on need and community service, not LSAT scores.

In the classroom, UNT students receive continuous feedback rather than a single exam grade. They satisfy extensive writing, research, skills, and experiential education requirements throughout their three years. They complete required courses in the Texas and national subjects featured on the bar exam. And a required capstone course helps them integrate learning from all three years and prepare intensively for the bar exam.

These elements of UNT’s curriculum rest on extensive research — in both law and education — demonstrating that these approaches help students succeed. The techniques are especially effective in assisting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are also particularly appropriate for preparing graduates to serve low- and middle-income clients.

UNT complements its research-based curriculum with strong academic support and careful monitoring. Faculty use frequent assessments to measure both student learning and their own efforts. These data allow faculty to counsel individual students, refine the curriculum, and inform admissions practices.

In admissions, UNT’s selectivity puts it among the top half of ABA-accredited law schools. UNT has admitted only half of its applicants, distinguishing among those who can succeed in its program and those who cannot. In making these distinctions, UNT considers a wide range of factors. LSAT scores and undergraduate grades count, but so do work experience (which has been shown to correlate with law school success), third-party recommendations, and personal interviews.

Students have responded enthusiastically to UNT’s innovative program. When compared to all ABA-accredited law schools, UNT enjoys the sixth highest yield rate (the percentage of admitted applicants who matriculate). If we limit the comparison to schools that use selective admissions to reject at least half of their applicants, UNT places third in its yield: behind Yale and Brigham Young, but just ahead of Harvard.

The ABA’s law school accreditation committee, however, is not impressed. That committee recently recommended that the ABA Council deny provisional accreditation to UNT. The recommendation rests primarily on a finding 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.”

This finding baffles me. I have taken a hard line against law schools that exploit students by admitting applicants with little chance of passing the bar exam, especially when those schools saddle graduates with high debt. But UNT is in an entirely different position. It charges low tuition and offers need-based aid. The LSAT scores of its entering classes are low, but they match or exceed the scores of at least fifteen accredited schools. And UNT’s selectivity suggests that it is not admitting students simply to fill seats or meet a budget.

Equally important, UNT has created a curriculum, academic support structure, and feedback loop that offer great promise in helping disadvantaged students succeed. Those same practices, together with its low tuition and practice-oriented education, will produce lawyers ready and able to serve needy communities. LSAT scores can predict success, but only personal commitment and excellent education deliver that success.

The committee’s recommendation to deny UNT provisional accreditation locks law schools into traditions that depress diversity and fail deserving clients. If granted provisional accreditation, UNT will still have to prove that its innovative methods succeed. In particular, it will have to meet the ABA’s bar passage standard. If the Council tightens that standard, as I and others have urged, UNT will have to satisfy the higher standard.

But without provisional accreditation, UNT can’t demonstrate its graduates’ success. We all, meanwhile, remain trapped in practices that fail to match our promises of diversity and professional service. To deliver on those promises, we must open our doors to new approaches that—like the ones at UNT — implement best practices in professional education.