Education / Schools, Law Schools

University of Delaware Starts the New Law School Process

Yesterday, University of Delaware President Patrick Harker announced that the university is thinking about founding a law school. It would be Delaware’s first public law school — Widener Law School is a private institution.

It will be some time before the proposed law school is ready for approval by the Delaware Board of Trustees. Law school advocates need to do a feasibility study and submit a business plan to see if the state can afford the new school. Nobody requires the law school to submit any kind of “business plan” for how graduates of the proposed law school will get jobs that pay enough to cover their debt burdens. Once again, graduate outcomes are completely ancillary to the discussion of whether or not a new law school makes sense.

If they jump through all of the hoops, the president hopes the new law school will be up and running by the fall of 2015. Harker’s letter to the University of Delaware community makes it sound like he hopes the new law school will be one of the legacies of his administration.

The legacy of future graduates from Delaware Law is not something anybody seems to give a damn about…

Predicting the legal job market in 2018, when the first class of UD-educated lawyers will hit the market, is frankly impossible. Nobody predicted the recession of 2008, so I’m not going to believe anybody who tells me that the legal economy will be booming or stable or totally collapsed by 2018.

What’s telling is that a reasonable assessment of whether or not students of Delaware Law will benefit from Delaware Law isn’t even really on President Harker’s radar. It doesn’t have to be. When contemplating a new law school, nobody forces a university to consider the potential graduates of that law school. From Harker’s letter:

Investing in a new law school is expensive. It would require subsidization of operating costs for the better part of a decade, retrofitting a campus building or leasing space for the law school’s first decade of existence, and making a substantial one-time start-up investment in library resources. The need to pursue philanthropic gifts in support of a new law school is critical, particularly in a revenue-based-budgeting world.

For the last year, a small task force of University officials has been at work exploring the feasibility of establishing a University of Delaware Law School. I presented the task force’s preliminary findings at meetings of the Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee and the Trustee Committee on Academic Affairs last month. Both committees unanimously adopted resolutions recommending preparation of a formal feasibility study (one of the documents required by the American Bar Association as part of the provisional accreditation process) and a full-fledged business plan (another required component of the application for provisional accreditation).

This is the business of legal education, and you’ll note that “education” isn’t among the top concerns. Can the state and school afford it? Where will the money come from? Will the ABA be satisfied with the school’s business plan? These are the questions they ask.

What about the students? What about tuition? What about the Delaware legal market (and those in Philly and D.C.) — can you make any showing that the law school will be a good investment for students given the uncertainty of the future legal economy? What about the fact that in 2015 hundreds of students will show up on campus ready to put their careers and their financial futures in the hands of the University of Delaware? Shouldn’t the first question be: Will this help, anybody?

No, they skipped that question and moved right to “how do we afford a library that will be impressive enough for U.S. News.”

And why? Because again, they don’t have to think any differently. Nobody is holding their feet to the fire on the issue of graduate outcomes. Not even potential students. Check out this ATL reader who emailed us about the new law school proposal:

As a University of Delaware alum, I am excited to hear that my alma mater is seriously pursuing a law school. It would be nice for Delaware to have a law school with the considerable resources of UD. As a current Widener University School of Law (Wilmington, DE) student, I am pissed they didn’t do it 5 years earlier.

You are pissed? Umm… WHY? What has Delaware said that would make this law school any more appealing for you as a student than Widener (or any other law school along the Acela corridor)? The University of Delaware isn’t concerned about you, it’s concerned about the University of Delaware. Again, the president said it himself:

The University’s strategic plan, the Path to Prominence, pledges that UD “will invest in professional programs that provide excellence, uniqueness, impact and response to societal needs,” including professional degree programs in “health, education, business and law.” No matter what group of universities UD uses for comparison purposes, we stand out as one of the few without a professional degree program in law or medicine…

To achieve parity with the nation’s leading higher education institutions, one of the most impactful investments we can make is in the founding of a law school. Much analytic work remains to be done. But speaking for the trustees who approved today’s resolution and the members of the task force whose hard work enabled us to reach this stage, I can say that the establishment of a law school has the potential to support UD’s growing prominence and move us into the next rank of American higher education.

You see, the rationale for this new law school is that it’ll make the University of Delaware look good to have a law school. It has nothing to do with legal education or professional services. Sure, some will say that because of Delaware’s unique role in corporate governance, a state law school makes sense. But that’s not why they’re doing it. The corporate law stuff will be an add-on tagline some marketer weaves in as the school fights for funding and public recognition. It’s not going to be a core value of the new school. From the very start, the president is telling you what the core values will be: taking the University of Delaware to “the next rank” of American higher education — a “rank” that will decided by U.S. News, no doubt.

Yet we’ve already got readers at Delware’s other law school sporting a “grass is always greener” attitude. I mean, assuming the new school is approved and eventually accredited, won’t Delaware be the only state with more accredited law schools than congressmen?

But that won’t matter. By 2015 you’ll have brochures that basically tell prospective students: “Couldn’t get into Penn or Georgetown or GW? Study law in Delaware, the epicenter of corporate law in America.” And prospective law students are so uninformed that they’ll hear the word “corporate,” see dollar signs, and think that they’ll be able to land a Biglaw job in New York because of their “practical” experience in… reading Delaware code when they have to, just like every other attorney in the nation. And by 2018, that gamble will have worked out for five people, and hundreds more will throw money down the drain desperately hoping to follow in those unlikely footsteps.

President Harker won’t care. He’ll have his law school and the prestige to go with it. But by then some state like Rhode Island will have gotten the message. And the whole process of making a new law school will start anew.

Letter from the President: Board authorizes law school study [University of Delaware Daily]
Another New Law School Is Proposed: U of Del. Wants to Open State’s First Public Option [ABA Journal]

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