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."