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Texas Law School Officials Answer Bar Association’s Scrutiny

Texas Law School Officials Answer Bar Association’s Scrutiny
By Lydia Lum

Despite a scathing American Bar Association (ABA) report against it, Texas Southern University’s law school remains a viable institution competitive with peer schools, TSU officials say.
Officials at TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law say they have taken steps to improve the passage rate of the state bar exam as well as the post-graduate employment rate. They also say they have increased admissions standards. “I believe the university and the law school have made a very good response to the ABA,” says law school Dean John Brittain.
However, Brittain and others say the fruits of those measures may not become obvious for some time. Higher bar exam results, for instance, may not occur for a few years as new students pass through Thurgood Marshall.
Meanwhile, at least one of the law school’s new efforts is drawing some opposition. Earlier this year, students complained about a proposed tuition increase of $50 per credit hour — or $1,500 annually. Students suggested incremental tuition increases instead. The disagreement strikes at the heart of the ABA’s scrutiny of the Houston law school. ABA officials have said “inadequate funding” is one of 11 ABA standards Thurgood Marshall may not be compliant with, causing the school to “shortchange” students (see Black Issues, Aug. 30, 2001).
Thurgood Marshall is the biggest producer of minority lawyers in Texas and one of the most diverse law schools nationally. In the 2000 fall semester, the law school enrolled 625 students. Blacks were the largest group at 60 percent. The ABA categorizes minorities as Black, Asian and Hispanic, but does not record numbers of students from overseas. In 2000, Blacks made up 8 percent, and Hispanics and Asians each 6 percent, of total law school enrollment across the country.
Yet in recent years, the median Law School Admissions Test score for students admitted to TSU has been 142, compared to the national average of 150. At TSU, the dropout rate of first-year students in 1999 was 40 percent because of low grades, while it was only 9 percent nationally. And the highest bar passage rate TSU law graduates have recorded since 1997 is 60 percent. In February 2001, the bar passage among first-time test takers was only 36 percent. That translates to fewer than 25 percent of Thurgood Marshall alumni landing a law-related job within one year of graduation. Nationally, more than 70 percent of new law graduates secured law-related work within a year.
Thurgood Marshall remains accredited with the ABA. But ABA criticisms can damage reputations and hurt recruitment of students and faculty. TSU regents might consider raising tuition this year to boost revenue for school improvements. Higher tuition is one of numerous proposals Brittain and other officials are pushing to alleviate ABA concerns. In a written response to the bar association, TSU officials said some proposals already have been put into play.
Specifically, the law school:
• Has a current $12 million budget that’s nearly twice that of a year ago. Some of the additional funds are state set-asides to help TSU better compete with its other state counterparts. Among other things, TSU officials are hiring a weekend reference librarian and several computer lab assistants, and buying new library equipment. They already have hired two more librarians.
• Has tightened admissions standards and denied admission to some applicants who in previous years would have been placed in a probationary program.
• Revised the probationary program with additional class time, student evaluations and a stronger focus on lawyering skills and strategies.
• Reduced size of the first-year class to 255 in the 2000 fall semester, down from 280. That semester, the law school also increased the number of first-year sections, which reduced class sizes and student-teacher ratios. For second-year students, some classes also added sections to reduce class size.
• Introduced in 2001 a bar exam preparation program for third-year students that emphasizes practice sessions of sequencing and writing the legal doctrines covered in the bar exam.
• Is hiring an assistant dean to oversee graduate job placement. They also plan to hire, within the next year, a full-time clerk for the placement office.
• Has increased budget allocations for equipment, publication of materials and staff travel.
• Has started renovating its building and is building a separate wing. Long-range plans call for a new facility, though construction funds have not yet been secured.
• Will offer full-time clinical faculty either multi-year contracts or tenure-track opportunities to improve job security.
• Reduced the number of credit hours awarded to its in-house environmental justice clinic from six to four. ABA officials said six were too many.
In their report to the ABA, TSU officials say the law school’s image has already improved in recent years through a new lecture series as well as job placement seminars. The school has drawn publicity for events such as former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s
address shortly after authorities reunited Elian Gonzalez with his father.

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