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Tim Anderson: U. law school continues to innovate, better serve Utah communities

A spate of recent articles published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere and discussed in the blogosphere detailed falling applications and rising costs at American law schools. The articles have prompted some concern in academic quarters and elsewhere about the relevance and method of delivery of legal education and even the continued viability of the legal profession.

The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law has introduced innovations that have allowed it to avoid many of the pitfalls detailed in these articles. Further, although the quantity of applications has been reduced, the quality of our accepted applicants has not significantly changed.

The college of law has been recognized nationally for these efforts that distinguish it from many of its peer institutions. In the last six months, the college of law’s efforts have resulted in four top 20 rankings. The College was ranked among the top 20 most innovative law schools and the best value law schools, and one of its faculty members was included among the nation’s most influential legal educators by the National Jurist magazine.

Meanwhile, our students continue to excel. Just last week, the college of law moot court team was named national champions for “Best Brief” at the nation’s most prestigious appellate moot court competition in New York City.

Even before the onset of the current recession a few years ago, the college of law recognized weaknesses in the law school business model and began working diligently and creatively to meet the demands imposed by the marketplace on each of our current students and graduates.

Three weaknesses identified by the college of law come quickly to mind:

First, traditional legal education is far too dependent on a traditional classroom approach, with too little emphasis on hands-on student experience. Second, financial needs have been met with an over-reliance on student tuition dollars to fund faculty research and similar programs. Third, law school applications have been driven by a long-perpetuated but outdated myth that each newly minted graduate must go out in search of employment at large institutional environments (large firms or government). In fact, less than 30 percent of the profession works in large private and public organizations.

To meet these concerns the college of law has embraced clinics, pro bono education and immersive simulations, all of which provide our students with real world experience in decision making, counseling clients, document drafting and other areas.

Last year alone, well over 420 students took part in the College’s intense simulation experiences. Even more remarkably, Utah law students contributed 47,375 hours of formal public service through a nearly unlimited array of pro bono, clinical and think tank opportunities. Indeed, one of our third year students has already completed 14 trials. As a result, the college of law students are better prepared to enter the job market and exhibit a broader range of relevant law-related skills.

Second, the college of law has raised non-tuition revenues to support its program. The college applied for and received many government and private research and training grants on work from Iraq to health care reform and privacy. It also entered into partnerships with entities like the National District Attorneys Association to provide advanced training for state and local prosecutors.

To reduce student debt upon graduation, the college of law has increased scholarship funding in the last seven years by an astounding 288 percent. Further, the college’s intensification of career support for its students to enter small firm and solo practice has generated successful results. The graduating class of 2011 was 28th in the country in long-term, J.D.-required employment.

In response to the third concern, the college of law has worked diligently with its students to seek out placement opportunities that go far beyond the limited big firm model. We are committed to helping our graduates address a wide variety of unmet legal needs.

Moreover, there have been accusations that law schools have misled students about the actual employment data and opportunities for newly graduated students. The college of law, however, has been careful to avoid the practices that led to these concerns. The organization Law School Transparency ranked the college among the top 20 most transparent law schools for the data it publishes about its students’ career placement records.

Finally, these achievements will be captured and expanded with plans for a new facility that not only sets new standards for sustainability, accessibility and education, but also frees up the current law school facility for much needed space by the University.

The college of law looks forward to creating future important contributions to the state of Utah through innovative training, applied research and direct service to the community.

Tim Anderson is a Member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Utah, a member of the University’s Executive Committee and also a Senior Partner at Jones Waldo PC.