MTSU’s proposed law school transfer: Can a failed Indiana law school succeed in Middle Tennessee?


Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines 

Five months ago, MTSU President Sidney McPhee signed a non-binding letter of intent to transfer the Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana to Murfreesboro. The proposed new MTSU School of Law would become the region’s first public law school.

News of the possible move was reported by the press in Indiana and Murfreesboro in late June with few details offered. The news said the two universities were still exploring the possibility of moving the law school to MTSU.

Since then, talks between the private Lutheran university of about 4,000 students and MTSU, a public institution with about 23,000 students, have continued to progress, McPhee said in an interview with Sidelines.

McPhee is adamant that the plan will be good for Murfreesboro and the greater area.

However, in the midst of a several-year-long decline in law school graduation rates and job security, can the school survive if MTSU does complete the transfer process? National studies show that law school graduating classes have grown smaller and that the number of jobs for graduates throughout the U.S. has remained stagnant or gone down.

McPhee, however, believes MTSU is situated in an area of need for legal education.

“The question of a need in this area is one that is a primary focus,” McPhee said. “The whole Middle Tennessee area doesn’t have a single public, accredited law school.”

It’s true that local students interested in pursuing legal education only have private schools as choices, and they’re all in Nashville: Vanderbilt, Belmont and the Nashville School of Law. The majority of private choices have higher tuitions if compared to a public law school in the state. For example, the University of Tennessee College of Law’s average 2018-19 tuition comes to $19,674, while Vanderbilt’s 2018-19 tuition is $56,980 and Belmont’s is $43,430. The Nashville School of Law is more affordable at about $7,060 for a student’s first year and $34,180 for the total cost of a law degree, but the school is not accredited by the American Bar Association, meaning that graduates must request special permission to practice in other states.

MTSU and Valparaiso have already decided on a few significant factors, McPhee said.

Under the proposed transfer, current “key” Valparaiso faculty, administrators and staff will join MTSU, and Valparaiso’s existing law library will be relocated to MTSU. McPhee also noted the accreditation by the American Bar Association will continue during and after the transfer to MTSU.

McPhee clarified that the transfer is not a purchase or a merger. It would be more akin to a “gift.” The law school would be housed at MTSU and would be treated as any other college within the university.

McPhee says the Miller Education Center could be the future site of the MTSU School of Law. (MTSU Sidelines / Andrew Wigdor)

According to the university president, MTSU is considering housing the school in the Miller Education Center on Bell Street, which was opened in 2016 and contains the Jennings A. Jones College of Business Center for Executive Education, the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services and more.

The law school at Valparaiso was founded in 1879 as a part of Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. In 1929, the school was accredited by the American Bar Association, and it was admitted to the Association of American Law Schools in 1930.

In more recent years, however, the school has faced a host of significant setbacks.

In November 2016, Valparaiso Law School was publicly censured by the ABA after reportedly not meeting accreditation requirements regarding admission policies. Due to continually low enrollment, the school dropped admission standards every year.

Valparaiso’s 2010 law class entered with an average score of 150 on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and a 3.31 GPA. By 2015, the average GPA fell to 2.93, and the average LSAT fell to 145.

Furthermore, only 130 students enrolled in 2015, which was 44 less than the previous year. By November 2017, the censure was lifted, but the school’s problems persisted. Class sizes had significantly decreased, and faculty buyouts were offered. The law school hired Ogilvy Public Relations in March 2017 to help it navigate through the downturn. In March 2018, the school’s dean, Andrea Lyon, announced her resignation.

McPhee said an MTSU School of Law would craft its own standards, hoping to avoid the problems that Valparaiso faced.

“MTSU will create and establish standards that meet ABA requirements and prepare students to take the placement exams and get jobs,” McPhee said. “Keep in mind, Valparaiso for years was competing with … private institutions within their area and their region. Here, we would be the only accredited, public law school within this region.”

McPhee said that there will, of course, be expenses for starting the new program but that the expenses will be much lower than if the university chose to purchase Valparaiso’s law school.

“The amount of required resources to acquire and retain such a program would be absorbent,” McPhee said. “One of the reasons that we are exploring this is because there are a number of expenses that we would not have to deal with.”

The transfer must first be approved by the governing boards of each institution and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, but MTSU has already completed a feasibility report in order to determine whether the school could be successful. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission is currently conducting their own feasibility study on the transfer, and the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners is doing the same.

According to both McPhee and MTSU’s feasibility report, the law school could be a success in the area, despite the national state of law schools.

According to a report and study from the National Association for Law Placement on the 2017 class, the number of jobs obtained by newly graduated law students throughout the nation remained flat or went down for the third year in a row. Members of the 2017 graduating class obtained 16,390 jobs in law firms of any size, which is down by around 4,000 since those jobs peaked in 2007.

Additionally, the size of the 2017 graduating class was smaller, with 34,922 law school graduates entering the job market. Compared to 2013 graduates (46,776), there were 25 percent fewer jobs available for 2017 grads.

“I’m certain it’s a combination of several factors,” said James Leipold, the executive director of NALP, explaining the decline.

He said that after the recession, the job market for law school students fell apart.

“I think a lot of students just decided it doesn’t make sense to go to law school right now,” Leipold said. “ … The cost of going to law school has gotten so much greater, and the average debt that students graduate with has gotten so much greater. I think some people are just making the judgment that the return on the investment just isn’t worth it.”

Leipold also stated that the lack of interest may stem from a generational shift with more technology startups and entrepreneurial opportunities for young people.

McPhee, however, is not deterred by the downward trends due to the opportunities that he sees for law school graduates in the region.

“When you look at (national data), it’s really focusing on litigators and general law practitioners,” McPhee said. “There are a lot of specialties such as health care, recording industry, cyber technology and intellectual property where businesses from across the nation, but particularly in this area, hire folks with legal training.”

The MTSU feasibility report was written by Steven Livingston, an MTSU professor and a research associate with the MTSU Business and Economic Research Center, and Murat Arik, the director of the center.

The first portion of the report tackles the potential student interest in a new law school at MTSU. According to the report, the number of MTSU students accepted into law schools has remained steady at around 70 students per year between 2013 and 2016. Pre-law students at the university have also remained steady at around 130 between 2013 and 2017.

Based on these numbers, the report’s authors state the law school is feasible.

“Even if the existence of a law school on campus would stimulate no additional interest in a legal career among MTSU students, the numbers show that its own student body would likely be a sizable source of applicants to an MTSU law program,” the report reads.

The report also examines geographical factors and cost. According to the report, the Nashville metropolitan area, with a population of 3 million, has three law schools: Vanderbilt, Nashville Law School and Belmont.

According to the report, Vanderbilt takes an average of 15 to 25 graduates a year from Tennessee colleges, and Belmont and the Nashville Law School each take about 100 students per year. The report also states that the metro area is geographically further from a public law school than any other of America’s top fifty metro areas. This is something that the report points out as “quite important.” According to a recent Law School Admission Council study, the majority of entering law school students stay within their home region, and the median distance from students’ homes is about 100 miles. There is no public school that close to Nashville.

An area of the Nashville region’s size should be expected to produce around 260 to 300 students per year that are accepted into law school, according to the feasibility report. The report states, “If this research is correct, most of these students would prefer to remain in the area.”

The report then goes on to cover tuition. As previously mentioned, private law school tuition is generally much more expensive than that of public schools. The report states that MTSU is the only university that would have the combination selling point of the Nashville metro location and a public school tuition.

Finally, the report examines the job market for local law school graduates. According to the report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that the employment of lawyers will increase by eight percent over the next 10 years. If this is accurate, the result will be an increase of 65,000 lawyers from 2016 to 2026. Additionally, the report says that the state of Tennessee estimates a 430 increase in lawyers from 2017 to 2019 and 620 openings for law graduates per year. State supply and demand is then examined. According to the report, around 80 percent of new Juris Doctor degree, or J.D., recipients, from accredited Tennessee law schools obtain jobs in the first year of their search, which is higher than most of the nation.

When looking at all J.D.s from across the nation that pass the Tennessee bar exam, about 60 percent find a job as a lawyer. Nashville is another important factor for the job market. The report states that the number of lawyers remains flat across much of Tennessee, but Nashville has added 1,000 new legal positions over the past six years. Therefore, a public law school in close proximity to the city would increase students’ chances of obtaining a position.

MTSU senior Jessie Forrester, who is majoring in integrated studies and hopes to enter law school after graduation, agreed that a school in the area would greatly benefit local students.

“I’ve been looking at various law schools, and I think it would be awesome if MTSU got the school transferred here in the next couple of years so I could go here and be in a surrounding that I’m comfortable in,” Forrester said. “I think a lot more people would probably look into going to law school if there was a public law school.”

Forrester said that the high requirements of private institutions can be daunting and that a public school could cultivate renewed interest in Tennessee law.

“There’s a lot of private law schools that are really hard to get into and have (low) acceptance rates,” Forrester said. “That’s what’s critical about law is the process it takes to even become a lawyer or get into law school.”

To contact news Editor Caleb Revill, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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