An UNTimely endeavor

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When you find yourself in a hole, you quit digging. When a public university is about to spend millions on an undertaking that won’t benefit Texans, it’s time for the metaphorical shovel to be put aside.

In this case, the hole belongs to the University of North Texas who for the last three years has been working to found a new law school at their satellite campus in downtown Dallas. The proposed school, which would be the 10th law school in the state, announced last week that U.S. District Court Judge Royal Furgeson could be serving as its first dean.

The school’s opening has already been significantly delayed. The inaugural class was originally slated to begin in the fall of 2011, but that date was postponed until fall 2012. That opening has since been pushed back another year to fall 2013. Given the current state of the legal market, coupled with cuts to funding for higher education, the school’s opening should continue to be delayed — if not scrapped altogether.

The current recession has hit the legal industry especially hard. Large law firms around the country have scaled back on hiring new associates and are downsizing internally, creating a surplus of unemployed lawyers. Recent graduates have been hard hit; according to the American Bar Association, only 68 percent of law school graduates from the class of 2010 were employed in jobs requiring bar passage. That statistic reflects a continued downward trend from 70 percent in 2009 and 74 percent in 2008.

Furthermore, hiring out of law schools is heavily based on a school’s reputation. Generally, newer law schools are ranked lower and subsequently have poorer employment statistics. Students at forth-tier law schools — the level of ranking by US News where the new UNT school would most likely start — have even lower employment averages.

Proponents of a UNT law school worked for a decade until getting approval from the state Legislature in 2009 to construct the school. But the legal market of the early 2000s was vastly different from today’s. The employment data in 1999 may have justified adding another law school to the DFW metroplex, but today that is just not the case.

In addition to the lack of employment opportunities is the enormous cost of a legal education; tuition at UT School of Law is currently $32,010 per year for in-state residents and $47,532 for non-residents and will most likely rise again next year.

And while Texas has fared better than most states during the recession, the state’s legal market is not robust enough to support an additional, new class of lawyers every year. Charles Cantu, the dean of St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio told San Antonio News-Express last year, “On the average, [Texas] licenses about 2,000 new lawyers every year, and all of our economic indicators at this point indicate the market is not absorbing all of those people.” Founding a new law school produces a catch-22 of sorts. To provide a quality legal education, it would be necessary for UNT to invest heavily to recruit quality professors and build an administrative infrastructure. Yet, to do so requires copious financial resources, which in turn spurs the extremely high tuition costs that are common at nearly every law school in the country.

Proponents of the potential law school have made its status as a public institution a major selling point. It’s true that public law schools offer a more affordable route for Texans. Currently, four of the nine law schools in Texas are public schools, and their average tuition is only $15,515 compared to $27,634 for private Texas law schools.

However, the fact that $15,000 is considered “affordable” simply highlights the outrageous costs of a legal education today. Perhaps UNT’s new school could offer a significantly lower tuition rate, thereby undercutting the bloated tuitions required by other Texas law schools. Yet doing so would handicap the new school’s ability to offer a high-quality education in return, thereby making it even more difficult for graduates to find jobs.

There’s no reason to think that the first crop of UNT Law graduates wouldn’t face the same circumstaces that their peers around the country are currently grappling with. The combination of poor job prospects, rising tuition costs, student loan debt and the continued proliferation of law schools — 17 new law schools have been accredited in the last decade — has made law school a losing bet for many Americans

Given those dire straits, now is not the time to experiment with a “budget” law school propped up by taxpayer monies.

UNT is a great school located in strong job market. But at a time when fiscal resources are scarce, it simply doesn’t make sense to invest so heavily in a project that promises so little a return on that investment. There are more worthy objectives, such as UNT’s mission to become the fourth Tier One research university in the state.

Another law school in the DFW metroplex may have been a good idea 10 years ago. Today it isn’t and should be tabled indefinitely.