Peter Alexander is tired of explaining it.
But the question keeps coming up: Why does Indiana need another law school?
Alexander is the dean of the newly created law school at Indiana Tech. And after a new set of statistics came out this month, showing again that there are, perhaps, more lawyers than needed, Alexander was again asked about it.
He is adamant: It’s not about the number of job openings versus the number of law school graduates. It’s about the quality of the law school graduate.
And Indiana Tech’s new law school will turn out high-quality graduates, making them necessities in any market, he said.
If we do our jobs, then our students will be the ones law firms want to hire, Alexander said.
According to statistics compiled by Matt Leichter at his blog, The Law School Tuition Bubble, Indiana ranks seventh among the states for producing more law school graduates than it has jobs for lawyers.
This month, Leichter’s work was featured in an article in The Atlantic’s business section headlined The Absolute Worst States for Job-Hunting Law School Grads.
The Hoosier State has four law schools already – two public and two private. Indiana Tech’s is slated to open this summer.
What kind of job possibilities exist for Indiana Tech’s graduates when they finish up is a matter of heated debate.
In the current economy, it’s tough to justify a new law school, said Kendallville attorney Mike Yoder, who is the treasurer of the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners.
Quick to point out he is not critical of Indiana Tech’s effort in this area, Yoder said he believes Indiana Tech is trying to meet a specific market niche and hopes it is successful.
He is encouraged by Indiana Tech’s heavy focus on practical experience. Yoder said he has long advocated for law schools to provide two years of book study and a full year of practical education.
But generally, Yoder said, there is a saturation of lawyers and not enough jobs to absorb them all.
That’s just what the numbers are, Yoder said. It’s my understanding, that if you advertise for paralegals, you get lawyers applying for the job.
Yoder chalks it up to a couple of factors.
First, he said, the number of law schools continues to grow and existing law schools are boosting enrollment.
Over the past few years, universities noticed the potential profit available in developing a law school, which requires, as Yoder put it, very little to operate other than a few open classrooms, the Internet and local attorneys willing to teach part time.
Again, he said, he is not speaking specifically of Indiana Tech, but this is what happens in some cases.
Leichter, a nonpracticing attorney and a writer, said the problem is also the value of a law degree.
Secondly, with the availability of student loans, students are willing to accrue more debt and stay in school longer for graduate schools.
Leichter worries specifically about student loans and heavy debt law school students take with them into the work world.
The universities benefit from the system regardless of whether the students graduate or find jobs as attorneys and are able to pay off their loans.
Leichter would like to see the jobs created before the lawyers are minted.
If the federal government eliminated the direct loan program, universities would be forced to keep their tuition costs below the value of the degrees they are selling, Leichter said.
The students don’t necessarily know what the outcome is going to be, he said. So they have to take the risk and pay it.
Bench, bar support
Indiana’s law schools cost between $23,500 and $48,730 a year.
Indiana Tech will be at the low end of the scale for cost, Alexander said.
The school will charge tuition of $29,500 a year, plus $800 in fees.
The least expensive school in the state is the Robert H. McKinney School of Law at Indiana University in Indianapolis and the priciest is the University of Notre Dame.
Alexander said Indiana Tech’s new law school will stand out in how it prepares students to be lawyers.
Similar to a medical school approach to education, Indiana Tech students will do classroom work but spend time on practicums and externships.
Seventy-five Allen County judges and lawyers have already signed up to be mentors for the program, Alexander said.
I think even the bench and the bar recognize we’re doing something different or they wouldn’t put their support behind it, he said.
And the faculty brings years of experience from private practice, ready to share them with students in the classrooms and present them with real-world problems to solve, he said.
During the third year of law school at Indiana Tech, the students can work up to 40 hours a week for credit in nonprofit or governmental law, what Alexander calls a semester in practice.
The whole orientation, he said, is different than the traditional law school model.
The practical approach to legal education is something law firms have been clamoring for over the years, he said.
It is difficult, though, to determine how Tech’s approach differs from the offerings at other law schools within the state.
Valparaiso University’s Law School touts its extensive externship program – offering 90 positions in 176 offices for students. National Jurist named the school tops in the nation for externship opportunities.
IU’s Maurer School of Law also offers externships and other areas for experience, such as a pro-bono immigration project and the Inmate Legal Assistance Project, according to its website.
Indiana Tech will not have the opportunity for provisional accreditation until it has been in operation for a year.
It is being established using the American Bar Association’s Standards for the Approval of Law Schools, officials said.
After being in operation for one year, the law school can petition for provisional approval by the American Bar Association. The provisional status lasts for up to three years before the American Bar Association considers full approval, according to officials.
On the school’s website, officials have published a disclaimer regarding accreditation.
The Law School makes no representation to any applicant that it will be approved by the American Bar Association prior to the graduation of any matriculating student, the website said.
To become a lawyer in Indiana, to take and pass the bar examination, one must have graduated from an accredited law school, and state bar officials did not differentiate between full or provisional accreditation.
The Indiana Tech law school is not yet accredited by the American Bar Association.
Indiana Tech is still taking applications for the law school, and a few students have been admitted already. The school is scheduled to open in August.
We’re comfortable with where we are, but I guess the students will tell us at the end of the day, he said.