law school

Ward Farnsworth, the dean of the Texas Law School, meets and greets with law students during the 45th annual Law Week in February 2013.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of Q-and-A’s with the deans of the University’s 18 schools and colleges. Ward Farnsworth was appointed dean of the law school in 2012.

 

The Daily Texan: What would you say are the major initiatives that you’ve undertaken since you came to the University?

 

Ward Farnsworth: My biggest concern about legal education is that it’s gotten a lot more expensive, and the expected value of the degree has not kept pace with the rising expense. For many years, the UT law school was the most remarkable deal in American legal education. It was almost free, and it provided a top tier credential and top tier opportunities. A lot of that is still true, but I can no longer claim that we’re almost free. Our tuition’s gone up a lot, as it has at most law schools. Our tuition is still, for in-state residents, $15,000 a year less than at any other school in the top 15 ... But if we are going to try to recreate the really great conditions of being a student here that this place traditionally has been associated with, it’s going to have to be through alumni support.

 

DT: Could you say more about reaching out to alumni for donations?

 

Farnsworth: Most of our alumni think this was an extraordinary decision they made to come to UT Law School. What they don’t all think and know is that we need their support. If you go to a law school almost for free, it probably doesn’t occur to you that the law school needs a lot of support from alumni, and at one time, we didn’t. When we were supported mostly by the state, alumni contributions were helpful, but we didn’t need everybody to be on board and everybody to be in. That’s changed, and a lot of our alumni, once they understand that’s changed, are very happy to get more involved with financial support ... I spend a lot of time studying what’s going on in other schools, and most of them have models in which their alumni support the school in larger percentages than ours have. So part of my drive has been not to seek huge gifts, although every dean likes a huge gift, but also just to get more of our alumni participating at all and giving back to the school.

 

DT: I’m just curious what your response is to all the charges that have come out about how legislators are helping students who apply get into the law school when they might not deserve it based on their LSAT scores or their bar passage rates.

 

Farnsworth: I occasionally get letters or calls from legislators who want to put a good word in for a constituent. I’ve never thought there was anything untoward about it. Sometimes the applicant gets in, and sometimes not.  It depends on the whole file. I’m fine with telling legislators that we aren’t going to be able to admit candidates they support. I’ve done that, and have found them good-natured about it.

 

DT: What areas of law do students at the UT Law School want to go into? What are the most popular areas?

 

Farnsworth: A lot of them are attracted to the energy area ... Intellectual property is an area that a lot of students are interested in. We have a lot of students who want to do public interest work ... A majority of our students spend some time just helping out an underserved population with their legal needs. For the students who do that, they usually say it’s one of the great things they did in law school, and it whets their appetite for more of the same when they get out ... It’s my general feeling that if you go to the flagship public law school in the state of Texas, when you get out, you ought to be able to afford to work for the state of Texas, and we’re doing everything we can to enable that.

UT President William Powers Jr. at the Dell Medical School groundbreaking Monday.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

On Sunday, the Austin American-Statesman reported that, while UT President William Powers Jr. served as dean of the Law School, he received $325,000 under a deferred compensation agreement that was apparently not approved by the UT System Chancellor. 

Although receiving the money without the Chancellor’s approval violated no laws, it did go against a UT System regents rule which states that “no [UT-System] officer or employee … shall accept remuneration” from an external entity whose primary objective is to support the UT System or any of its 15 academic and health institutions without explicit approval of the Chancellor. 

Powers' past misstep was revealed by the Statesman just as student groups began calling once again for the resignation of Regent Wallace Hall, the embattled member of the board of regents who is currently under investigation by the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations. That committee is considering recommending Hall’s impeachment, an unprecedented move, and recently issued a report claiming that Hall may have illegally viewed confidential student data. 

It’s worth noting, however, that this student data was compromised in the course of Hall’s massive open records requests to the University, which he has said he made in an effort to find information on alleged misdeeds committed by UT officials in regard to admissions decisions and loans gifted to employees of the law school. 

So what does Powers’ violation of this rule mean for the battle between Powers and the UT System regents? Given that Powers’ action broke no laws and, by many indicators, appears to be an unintentional mistake, probably not much. It also says little about the ultimate intentions of Hall. But the revelation does demonstrate how much money is being exchanged between higher-level administrators at the University and how much UT depends on obscure rules to keep these transactions fair and above ground. 

The regents’ rule against System officials receiving large sums of money without the Chancellor’s approval, which Powers violated, is an attempt to avoid the problem of conflicts of interest in the dispersal of University funds. As recent history will tell us, that problem is very real: Larry Sager, Powers’ successor in the law school, was asked by the president to resign from his position after it was revealed that he had received a $500,000 forgivable loan from the same nonprofit foundation from which Powers received money while dean at his own suggestion. 

Powers and Sager, however, were not the only faculty members that received retention payments from the UT Law School Foundation without a chancellor’s sign-off. According to the Statesman, about 20 professors received such forgivable loans, ranging from about $75,000 to $500,000 between 2006 and 2010.

It’s likely that Powers did not realize he was violating a rule in taking the money. Although he failed to mention the lack of disclosure to the Statesman when the paper inquired about it a year ago, Powers has since provided them with the necessary information, calling his initial failure to do so an “honest mistake.” 

The recent revelation may not point to wrongdoing on the part of Powers, but it should certainly cause students to reflect on the recent efforts to “Stand with Powers” and stand against Hall. Powers’ lack of disclosure, although potentially accidental, is yet another reminder of how much money is being exchanged at the highest levels of University administration and how few eyes — of Texas or otherwise — are watching these transactions. 

Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

Six years after her initial request for public records regarding federally built fences along the Texas-Mexico border, UT law professor Denise Gilman has passed a significant barrier in receiving the documents. On March 14, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell ruled that the government must disclose names and addresses of those affected by the border wall due to possible discrimination. 

In 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which mandated the construction of a 670-mile wall along the border of the U.S. and Mexico. Gilman, also co-director of the law school’s Immigration Clinic, said when she requested access to the fence records in 2008, the government only released a “handful of documents” — all heavily redacted. Gilman sued for the withheld information under the Freedom of Information Act in 2009.

Gilman said she still has not received the records, now required by the ruling, from the government.

“It was a very long and tedious process to obtain government documents that are critical to a proper and full understanding of border wall construction in South Texas,” Gilman said. “I was genuinely surprised to see the government put up so much resistance to making information about this massive infrastructure project publicly available, particularly in a time of increased emphasis on government openness.”

Barbara Hines, law professor and co-director of the law school’s Immigration Clinic, said the records should give important insight into the government’s decision-making process regarding the wall’s placement.

“The records will be useful to learn who the affected landowners were — that is, those whose land was taken for the construction of the border wall — and to determine whether low-income residents were treated differently than those more wealthy residents,” Hines said.

Although construction of the fences is already completed, Gilman plans to make the new records publicly available online and to conduct additional analysis on the new information.

“I hope that the decision will increase government transparency and accountability in the future as similar border projects are considered, such as proposals for additional wall construction or enhanced Border Patrol presence along the border,” Gilman said.

John Sutton, a former dean and professor in the School of Law, died Friday from complications due to old age at the San Angelo Community Hospital. Sutton was 95 years old. 

Sutton graduated from UT’s law school in 1941 after meeting his wife Nancy. Sutton went on to serve as an agent for the FBI during World War II, and later in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the U.S. Army Reserves during the Korean War. 

After his service, Sutton joined the law school faculty in 1957 and continued teaching until his retirement at the age of 85. Sutton served as dean from 1979 to 1984 .

“He got the law school through one of its worse times,” law professor David Anderson said. 

Those times began when the law school was searching for a new dean. Several members of the faculty, frustrated at the list of candidates, were threatening to leave. But Sutton’s appointment and his leadership afterward helped ease tensions and restore order.

Anderson, a colleague of Sutton, said they used to go watch quarter horse races in Texas and across the country. Besides being a close friend, Anderson said Sutton was clear, helpful and an enthusiastic teacher. 

Law professor John Dzienkowski was both a student and colleague of Sutton’s. 

“He was very faculty-focused and very much a consensus leader,” Dzienkowski said. “As a scholar, he was one of the early teachers of a subject called professional responsibility.”

Sutton’s development of professional responsibility, which teaches students about the ethics of their future profession, is now a specialty area taught at the law school. According to Dzienkowski, Sutton also created an ethics code during the 1960s, and it became one of the major codes lawyers were governed by.   

“He was a very learned person,” Dzienkowski said. “In my mind, he was a dean that brought a lot of stability to the law school. He brought national recognition to UT’s law school.”

From judging ethics codes to legal cases to horse races, Sutton exercised sound judgment. 

“The thing about lawyering is that many people can look up the law, but few people have good judgment,” Dzienkowski said. “John had excellent judgment.” 

Sutton is survived by his wife Nancy, their son and daughter, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held for Sutton on Saturday in San Angelo.

A law school may join the proposed consolidated UT System institution in the Rio Grande Valley despite claims by the state’s higher education agency that Texas does not immediately need another law school.

Two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives would grant university systems the authority to establish a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties, two border counties near the Gulf of Mexico.

Barry McBee, UT System vice chancellor for governmental relations, said the System is prioritizing the establishment of the consolidated university over the establishment of a law school, which could become part of the new institution at a later date.

“Our initial goal is the successful creation of the new university,” McBee said. “If legislation passes and other systems wish to establish a law school, we would not stand in the way of that and would look forward to partnering with them in some fashion.”

The Texas Legislature is considering bills filed in both houses that would combine the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution. The bill would give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center would become a medical school under the proposal.

In a 2010 report, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended against creating a new law school, citing data that projected the state does not face a shortage of lawyers. However, the report said a law school in the Rio Grande Valley would increase opportunities for underrepresented groups, primarily Hispanics, who comprise 7 percent of the State Bar of Texas’ membership.

Similar legislation was introduced during the past three legislative sessions, but did not gain approval.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen and UT alumnus, filed a bill that would grant the UT System Board of Regents the authority to establish and operate a law school. He said the bill would be amended to allow other university systems to establish a law school in the Valley. 

The proposed law school would cost the state more than $80 million during a five year period for construction costs, hiring faculty and operations. The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for a prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation. Lucio said the potential cost should not bar legislators from addressing legal education in the Valley.

“I’m not naive to the cost restraints of establishing a new school,” Lucio said. “I’m not naive to the fact that we’re going to probably spend a substantial amount of money establishing this umbrella university in South Texas, but we can’t stop having the conversation.” 

Lucio said the region has one of the lowest lawyer-to-resident ratios in Texas.

Cameron County has one lawyer for every 768 residents, and Hidalgo County has one lawyer for every 832 residents, according to a study of attorney population density for 2011-2012 gathered by the State Bar of Texas. 

In contrast, Travis County has one lawyer for every 115 residents, Bexar County has one lawyer for every 320 residents and Harris County has one lawyer for every 193 residents.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, filed a separate bill to establish a law school in the Valley and said residents may not have the financial means to move elsewhere to attend law school even if they are qualified to attend.

“If we’re pushing a medical school and understand that we don’t have a medical school close by, why not have a law school?” Martinez said. “We should be afforded the same opportunity as the rest of the state.”

Published on March 4, 2013 as "South Texas law school proposed". 

Kimberly McCarthy, the first woman scheduled to be executed in the United States since 2010, won a reprieve when a state district court halted a lethal injection on Jan. 29, only hours before it was scheduled to take place in Huntsville. Some 13 years ago, a Dallas jury convicted McCarthy of killing an elderly neighbor. The defense lawyer who won her reprieve was Maurie Levin, a UT law professor. Before the state district court, Levin successfully argued that McCarthy needed time to pursue an appeal based on concerns that the selection of her predominately white jury members hinged on their race.  

After prevailing for her client, Levin answered our questions about Texas’ record on the death penalty, race and reforms related to both, as well as why she decided to attend law school.

Daily Texan: What changes have been made to jury selection since your client was convicted in 1998?
Maurie Levin: There have not, to my knowledge, been significant changes since 1998. There have been barely [any notable] decisions in court, including in the United States Supreme Court, that recognize problems with race discrimination in jury selection.

DT: Does racial bias still exist on Texas juries? Where and why?
ML: That is a very big question that is hard to answer in less than a couple of days, perhaps. But do I believe race bias still exists in the selection of juries in capital cases? Yes, I do. I think that in Dallas County in particular, there’s a well-fastened history of discrimination in the selection of juries to the exclusion of African-Americans that created a culture of discriminatory practices that do and don’t continue today.

DT: What examples do you turn to in order to understand whether change could happen?
ML: I’m not trying to change a culture, I’m trying to bring to the court’s attention this issue of Kimberley McCarthy’s case. So if I don’t know, do I think that culture needs to be changed? Yes. I think that exposing instances of bias and discrimination in jury selection that continues to this day is perhaps one important step to making that happen.

DT: Will there ever be a time when they are gone?
ML: Well, that’s like asking if I think we’ll ever live in a culture that does not have racism in it. I hope so. I think that there are systemic issues that facilitate or make it easier for individual human error or human bias to play a role.

DT: How should prosecutors, defense lawyers and state lawmakers go about eradicating long-standing cultures of race -biased jury selection?
ML: I think prosecutors need to not strike people on the basis of their race, and the best lawyers need to be on the lookout and vigilant. And I think the courts need to recognize and not tolerate instances where it does happen and it is brought to their attention.

DT: Do you believe public support for the death penalty will wane in Texas?
ML: Will it? I think that nationally there is increasing recognition of the fallibility of the system, there are increasing numbers of people who have been exonerated, which forces [one] to recognize that there are people who have been wrongly convicted, and that is a trend even in Texas. And some say it is reflected in the decreasing number of death sentences that are handed down by Texas juries — that people are less willing to convict and sentence someone to death — when we have all become so familiar with how easily we get it wrong. So I think Texas, while not perhaps on par with some parts of the rest of the country, has already started to recognize some problems [with the death penalty].

DT: Why are Texas juries so prone to sentencing people to death?
ML: I am frequently asked that question, and I think it is a really difficult one to answer. I think there is a convergence of factors that has lead Texas to lead the pack for death sentences and executions. I don’t think there’s an easy or short answer.

DT: How have UT law school students’ attitudes about the death penalty changed during your time at UT Law?  
ML: I don’t know if I’ve seen an enormous shift in the attitudes of students. I co-teach the capital punishment clinic, and they come into the clinic wanting to learn about how the death penalty is administered and wanting to learn about lawyering, and I think that has remained at a constant.

DT: Why did you become a lawyer and would you advise students to go to law school?
ML: I became a lawyer because I wanted to have the power to effect change. I still believe being a lawyer is a good way to do that. I personally did not go to law school for financial compensation, and I would never suggest to anyone that they do that.

Editor’s note: We will feature higher education bills filed for Texas’ 83rd legislative session, which begins Jan. 8, every day until the end of the semester.

A series of bills for the upcoming legislative session would facilitate the establishment of new schools and educational programs, including a proposed UT law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, filed a bill that would grant the UT System Board of Regents the authority to establish and operate a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties, two border counties near the Gulf of Mexico.

Lucio’s legislative director Houston Tower said the region’s distance from law schools in Austin, San Antonio and Houston discourages residents from attending those schools.

“Most [residents who pursue a legal career] have to uproot themselves, which at their income level is not feasible,” Tower said.

He said the proposed school would combat a perceived shortage of lawyers in the region compared to other areas of the state.

Cameron County has one lawyer for every 768 residents and a population of 414,123, according to a study of attorney population density for 2011-2012 gathered by the State Bar of Texas. With a population of 797,810, Hidalgo County has one lawyer for every 832 residents.

In contrast, Travis County has one lawyer for every 115 residents and a population of more than 1 million, Bexar County has one lawyer for every 320 residents and a population of close to 2 million and Harris County has one lawyer for every 193 residents with a population of more than 4 million.

Lucio has introduced the bill during the past three legislative sessions, but it did not gain approval from the House Higher Education Committee.

Tower said the committee was concerned about the proposed school’s budgetary impact. He said the school would cost the state more than $80 million over a five-year period for construction costs, hiring faculty and operations.

“That tends to be the barrier that we face [in passing the bill],” Tower said.

The bill would direct the board to ask the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to conduct a feasibility study to determine what the System must do to seek accreditation for the law school before its establishment.

Another bill introduced by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, would allow the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso to become an independent institution with the Texas Tech System rather than a branch of the Health Sciences Center based in Lubbock.

If the bill passes, the center would hire its own president and administration, have the authority to issue degrees and allow the Texas Tech Board of Regents to establish teaching hospitals affiliated with the campus.

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, filed a bill that would allow the University of Houston’s College of Optometry to operate a summer optometry program.

Printed on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 as: Bills endorse new Texas schools

Editor’s note: Ward Farnsworth began June 1 as dean of the University of Texas School of Law. Before he started, Farnsworth served as an associate dean at Boston University School of Law. Farnsworth shared his opinions with The Daily Texan about when a student should (and shouldn’t) go to law school, distributing forgivable loans to faculty members, and law school rankings.

The Daily Texan: You’ve been dean for exactly one week. What have you accomplished and what have you learned so far? Have any of your perceptions of the law school changed?
Ward Farnsworth:
The main thing I’ve accomplished in the first week is having conversations — with two or three dozen members of the law school faculty and staff — in which I’ve learned a great deal about the state of the school. I’ve been impressed from top to bottom with everyone’s commitment to the place and its students. I’m on a steep learning curve right now, and so there are all sorts of things about the culture and life of the place that are obvious to long-timers but new to me. The main thing that strikes me is the sense of pride people who work at the law school feel about the University.

DT: How has UT School of Law fared with the nationwide drop in applicants to law schools? Is there anything you will do in the next year to arrest that trend?
WF:
Our school is affected by that trend just like any other. I don’t know that it’s my place to try to arrest that trend — the decline in applications is driven by changes in the economy and the legal job market. Probably fewer students should be going to law school now than were going there ten years ago, so its no surprise that applications are down.

DT: The faculty expressed a lack of confidence in your predecessor. How have your relations started with them?
WF:
I don’t know that I would describe the situation in the way that your question did. Dean [Lawrence] Sager accomplished a lot of great things for the school but, in any event, I think everybody is looking forward to moving on from those controversies. My relations with the faculty have been wonderfully welcoming.

DT: Why would you tell an aspiring student to risk the $75,000 in debt that the average public law school student owes upon graduation, given the grim employment picture for lawyers these days?
WF:
I wouldn’t necessary advise an aspiring student to do as you say. I’d have to know a lot more for exactly the reasons you state. Going to law school is a big decision. It isn’t for everybody, and I advise people not to go about as often as I advise them to go. I think it’s still a great decision for the right student, but it has to be thought through very carefully. I do think, once a student has made the decision to go to law school, the decision to pick our law school in particular is a much easier case to make.

DT: Gov. Rick Perry and UT President William Powers Jr. have fought over proposed tuition increases. What’s your opinion about the increases that law students face?
WF:
I have mixed feelings about it. My view is that law school tuition is already frighteningly expensive around the country, even though our school remains the least expensive, in many respects among schools of its strength. On the other hand, we’re trying to stay competitive with those other schools in our cohort and, unfortunately, staying competitive is expensive.

DT: Will law school faculty members continue to receive loans from the UT Law School Foundation, and who will have oversight regarding the distribution of those loans? Do you agree with the practice of giving law faculty loans and is it fair — why or why not?
WF:
That remains to be seen. The Law School Foundation, as I’m sure your readers understand, is an association of alumni who help support the school in its efforts to remain competitive without burdening the taxpayer or the tuition-paying student. These alumni are wonderfully loyal and important to the school. The exact form that their support takes is something we’ll be looking at, and any such support will be processed carefully in the future to make sure that no questions are raised in anyone’s mind.

DT: But do you agree with the practice? Is it fair to give law school faculty loans?
WF:
Fair to whom?

DT: When the broader UT community learned about the practice, discussion tended towards the unfairness of the size of the loans and the manner in which they were distributed.
WF:
It may be that we don’t use the exact forgivable loan format for supporting faculty in the future. We’ll be looking at that. The forgivable loans are a way to encourage the retention of faculty by making a loan to them and then forgiving it over a period of years and thus giving them a strong reason to stay around at the school during the period of the loan — that was the idea behind it. In terms of fairness, the most important things to understand about these loans is that they were not made at the expense of the students. They were made, in effect, by the association of our alumni who, as I mentioned before, are seeking to help us retain first-rate faculty without burdening the students. There are questions about fairness raised in terms of how decisions were made about which faculty received the loans and those concerns have been examined closely by a committee at the law school over the last six months, and I’ll be looking at them hard myself.

DT: Is that something you plan to do early on?
WF:
Yes, I’ve already started thinking about it, and it will be a topic for examination and discussion for all of us in the near future.

DT: How will you recruit top faculty?
WF:
One of my primary goals is to make sure that the law school is the kind of community where faculty want to teach and students want to learn, so that recruitment isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents but is a matter of showing off the great advantages of being here. I think the law school has historically enjoyed a reputation as a place with great collegiality, and a very high quality of life for its students, and I want to build on that.

DT: How important are rankings and how important is it to make UT among the top 14 on the U.S. News & World Report’s roster?
WF:
It’s very important for this school not to chase rankings of those kinds at the expense of its mission. That’s a great temptation in this business because, unfortunately, many prospective students rely heavily on those rankings without understanding how arbitrary they can be and how subject to gaming they often are. Obviously, I would like to see our rankings go up just as much as anybody. But, our top priority is to provide the best-value legal education in the country.

DT: That question came from two former members of the editorial board who are law school bound.
WF:
I don’t blame them for asking.

DT: They were fixated on rankings. It was amazing to watch their lives be overtaken by conversations of rankings.
WF:
I know, it’s very troubling, and I don’t know what to do about it … What everybody will say is “Well, I don’t believe in rankings, but everybody else does, so I have no choice but to be obsessed with them,” and I really don’t think that a move by the law school a few runs in either direction has anything to do with actual changes in the quality of the place, or in terms of what the students receive while they’re here, or their prospects for employment once they leave.

DT: The former editorial board members were so overwhelmed by the amount of money they will owe after graduation, and what they will be required to do in order to be able to afford to pay that amount. They relied on rankings because they felt they couldn’t afford not to.
WF:
Law school has gotten so expensive and the job market so difficult that every applicant is under a lot of economic pressure to make the most of their decision, and they worry more about money than they used to on both ends of the proposition, both in the cost of going and what they’re going to get when they get out, and who can blame them?

Last December, when my fellow law students and I were cramming for finals, we received news that our fearless leader, Dean Lawrence Sager, had been fired. This past month, once again cramming for finals, we received more welcome news: distinguished legal scholar Ward Farnsworth had been hired as the new dean. Dean Farnsworth brings an impressive list of accolades to UT, though some of us were already familiar with him as the author of our torts textbook.

In an introductory email to students, Dean Farnsworth invited us to give feedback on how the law school can perform better going forward. I’m sure many of my fellow students would like to see more flexible class schedules, fewer tuition increases or a return to the US News & World Report’s cherished “T-14.” However, I only have one request of the new Dean and his administration: above all else, never lie to us.

I don’t mean to imply that Dean Farnsworth, or any of the law school’s exceptional administrators would do such a thing. I have never had a negative experience with any member of the staff or administration. But recently their peers at other law schools have failed to uphold those ethical standards.

In the past year both the University of Illinois and Villanova University were publically embarrassed after they were caught fabricating admissions statistics in order to improve their positions in the law school rankings. More troubling is how some law schools have inflated their employment statistics, thereby misleading prospective and current students as to the likelihood they’ll be able to find employment. Last year 15 law schools were named in a class action by former students who alleged that the schools engaged in deceptive business practices by purposefully misleading prospective students. Those schools, which are all part of the “fourth-tier,” routinely reported post-grad employment rates well over 90 percent. Those numbers came despite the fact that the national employment rate for law graduates last year was only 85.6 percent, with only 65.4 percent of jobs requiring bar passage. The nation’s worst law schools were claiming that they were out-performing the national average.

The impact of those allegations of fraud have been compounded by a struggling legal industry. Rampant unemployment is coupled with the sky-rocketing cost of a legal education. The National Law Journal recently estimated the average debt for the class of 2015 will be $210,796 once cost-of-living is included. The result is a proverbial death trap where graduates are saddled with debt and can’t find employment to pay it off. It’s a familiar story, but the impact on law students has been especially hard.

UT Law hasn’t committed the kind of egregious misrepresentations that other law schools have engaged in, but the school can still do better when it comes to accurately presenting graduates’ employment statistics. For instance, the school’s 2011-12 Admissions Bulletin claims that, in an average year, 97 percent of graduates are employed within nine months of graduation. However, the past few years have not been “average” when it comes to finding employment. In 2008, the number of graduates employed within nine months was approximately 94.5 percent. In 2009, the number dropped to 92.8 percent. Last year it was 89 percent.

Furthermore, those numbers do not necessarily mean graduates are obtaining stable employment. The employment data for the class of 2011 includes graduates working positions that are short-term or part-time as part of the total number of “employed” graduates. Of this year’s 382 graduates, only 302 are actually employed in long-term, full-time positions.

Statistics such as the claim of 97 percent employment may technically be accurate, but they’re not a good faith attempt to inform prospective students about the realities of the current job market, which are bleak even at a law school with UT’s prestige.

That doesn’t mean that any members of the UT Law community have acted unethically or lack principle. The school’s leaders are always under enormous pressure to improve UT’s position in the extremely influential law school rankings. It’s a laudable goal as well. Improvements in the rankings help to bolster the law school’s reputation, and my classmates and I will soon be relying on that brand as we search for jobs.

But, we shouldn’t let our desire for a higher ranking compromise the school’s moral obligation to be truthful to its students. Giving up three years and nearly $100,000 is a life-changing decision that should only be undertaken after applicants have reviewed all of the facts. UT Law will best serve its students, alumni, and the constituents of this state by being forthright and honest about employment expectancy in today’s job market, even if other schools aren’t.

Dave Player is a second-year UT law student and a member of the Texas Student Media board.

The UT law school dropped back out of the prestigious top 14 law schools compiled by the U.S. News & World Rankings, but officials say the drop is not a result of controversial administrative decisions made last fall.

The firing of the former law dean Larry Sager in December did not influence the rankings since the U.S. News & World peer assessments were sent out in early October and were due in December.

Interim law dean Stefanie Lindquist said the key to the rankings is the school’s peer assessment scores that have remained consistently strong for years, but other factors influence the fluctuations.

U.S. News & World began the rankings in 1990, with the most importance placed on peer assessments from the top administrators and faculty of law schools, as well as a lesser portion by pre-selected lawyers and judges. Another portion of the rankings is based on selectivity factors and faculty resources.

“The rankings do not necessarily reflect the true quality of the law schools,” Lindquist said. “Given that we know the quality of the school has not changed, it seems artificial.”

President William Powers, Jr. fired the previous law dean, Sager, in December after several law professors filed an open records request that revealed compensation disparities among the faculty.

“The change in deanship here had no impact on the rankings,” Lindquist said. “The surveys were already in the seals.”

Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World, said the drop could be the result of small changes in a lot of factors and because the law schools that historically make up the top 14, such as Yale and Stanford, score consistently higher.

“It’s that UT-Austin’s profile is somewhat below them and they can’t raise it high enough to consistently be in that group,” Morse said.

Law student Joseph Keeney began at the UT School of Law last fall and said he does not worry about the rankings. He said students concerned with the rankings are looking for the prestige associated with the group.

“I’m still going to have the same job prospects that I had expected before I started,” Keeney said.

Keeney said the firing of Sager caused some distraction during finals, but he did not think it would greatly affect his education.

“I haven’t noticed any change at all,” Keeney said. “I think we’re in good hands.”

Lindquist said she does not think the issue of changing deans will hurt next year’s peer assessments because the law school has moved beyond it and if a new dean is hired, it could bring positive publicity to the school.

Printed on Friday, April 6, 2012 as: Rank drop not tied to firing, law school says