UNT-Dallas College of Law is already meeting a critical need for lawyers

Last week, the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law announced that it had received full accreditation from the American Bar Association.

The ABA accreditation is a critical victory and affirms that UNT-Dallas College of Law is delivering on its promise to provide quality, accessible, and affordable legal education that expands access to justice for all Texans.

William Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” and more than a few Texans might think he was onto something. But in a society based on the rule of law, the legal profession is essential to defend the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Despite the perception that Texas had too many lawyers, when UNT-Dallas College of Law was established in 2009, the reality was that our state did not have enough lawyers.

Between 1969 and 2009, the population of Texas grew from 11 million to 25 million and the demand for legal services increased. However, in those 40 years, the state of Texas has not created a single new ABA-accredited law school.

North Texas has become the largest metropolitan area in the nation without a public law school. Analysis of the bill noted that Texas-educated attorneys were so scarce that local law firms imported one-third of their lawyers from law schools outside the state. Additionally, 75% of Texan families who applied for legal aid were denied and 90% of Texans’ civil needs were unmet, according to Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

In 2009, state, local, and business leaders came together to create the UNT-Dallas College of Law. In the Texas Legislature, a Senate Democrat and a House Republican who each represented Downtown Dallas put aside partisan differences to draft legislation that created the school, authorized $40 million in bonds and gave access to an endowment of 250 million dollars. The City of Dallas donated the Dallas Municipal Building, a fine arts landmark, to serve as the campus and pledged $14 million. The Dallas business community helped with $2 million through a public-private partnership.

Since its birth, UNT-Dallas College of Law has continued to progress. In 2013, it brought in far-sighted trustees, such as founding dean and retired U.S. District Court Judge W. Royal Furgeson Jr. and associate dean Ellen Pryor. In 2014 he started teaching students. In 2017, he received provisional ABA accreditation and graduated his inaugural class. In 2018, he put Dean Felecia Epps, an inspiring academic, judicial and military pioneer, at the helm.

Today, UNT-Dallas College of Law is raising the bar for innovation, accessibility, diversity, and affordability. Students gain real-world experience due to the emphasis on a practice-ready curriculum. Working professionals can become lawyers through its part-time courses. The student body, made up of more than 75% Hispanic and black, is among the most diverse in the country. With annual tuition under $20,000 (less than half the national average), graduates can afford to give back to Texas through public service.

North Texas has become a vibrant hub for legal education. In addition to UNT-Dallas College of Law, Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas and Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth are thriving. US news and world report SMU class No. 52, and National Law Review places SMU Dedman in its Top 30 for hiring at leading companies and in its Top 20 for promotions as a partner. For timely placement, Texas A&M’s Class of 2020 ranked No. 10 in the nation.

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “We know what we are, but we don’t know what we can be.” When few Texans envisioned the transformative growth of our state and region, UNT-Dallas College of Law was fortunate that at least one Texan could see what this could become.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jack Pope was one of our state’s most prominent and longest-serving jurists. During his nearly 104 years of life, he amassed an extraordinary documentary and legal library. In 2013, shortly before his death, Pope endowed his collection of more than 300 volumes of Texas case law, including his complete and signed set of Texas case law, to the UNT-Dallas College of Law in a ceremony at attended by fellow Chief Justices Nathan Hecht, Wallace Jefferson and Thomas Philips.

Pope, who liked to call himself a “common law judge,” set high standards for the fledgling downtown Dallas institution to rise up to defend the rule of law and the rights of ordinary Texans. As the UNT-Dallas College of Law takes flight, the Chief Justice’s legacy is certainly under its wings, and by achieving full accreditation, its students and leaders are honoring his vision.

Dan Branch represented Dallas in the Texas House of Representatives from 2003 to 2015. He and Senator Royce West co-authored the legislation that created the UNT-Dallas College of Law. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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