Leaders at University of Washington Tacoma have postponed a proposal to create a law school on the growing campus, citing strong competition from existing schools for the region’s available law students.
UWT Chancellor Mark Pagano said Friday that the university remains interested in adding a law school but will not ask the Legislature to create one now. He said the university will focus its immediate plans on building undergraduate pre-law programs to grow the demand for a law school in the South Sound.
It delays the vision, expressed by some backers, of opening a UWT law school as soon as this fall.
“The last thing we want to do is to start a law school and it not to be successful early,” Pagano said.
A UWT spokesman said a study on the feasibility of opening a law school should be finalized within the coming week. He declined to provide a preliminary copy to a reporter Friday.
Pagano said officials began reviewing the study in late 2016 and based their decision on its findings.
“The study came back and said there is demand in the future,” Pagano said. “We’re right now not to that point where it would be in the best interest of everybody to take that major step forward.”
The move is the latest twist in a long-running debate over returning a law school to Tacoma, which has been without one since the University of Puget Sound sold its law school to Seattle University in 1993.
The feasibility study was commissioned in early 2016 to gauge how UWT could succeed in building a law school that would be separately accredited from the one at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. A civic campaign collected nearly $2.5 million in pledges toward starting a UWT law school.
Pagano said the university wants to establish a pipeline of law students before it seeks state lawmakers’ help in creating a public law school.
“We are wanting to expand, and are expanding, our legal education in this area,” Pagano said. “We are just not asking of the state Legislature to fund a law school at this time. We are working toward enriching what we do in legal education as we move forward, with an eye toward developing that as a next step.”
Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County and an advocate of adding a UWT law school, said the study found that the South Sound region could provide jobs for 69 new attorneys a year.
“We could’ve heard coming back that there’s issues and the market demand’s not there,” Kendall said. “Well, that’s not what we’re hearing, so that’s been pretty exciting.”
Kendall, who said last year a UWT law school could open in 2017, was upbeat about the decision to move more slowly.
“It’s kind of a ramp-up stage that we’re heading into,” Kendall said, “as opposed to announcing we’re going full bore for accreditation right now. It’s going to be a ramping-up process over probably a year or two, which fits our desires.
“What we were looking for is a clear path forward,” he added, “and that’s what the feasibility study gives us.”
Margaret Shepherd, chief strategy officer for the University of Washington, declined to say whether the timeline Kendall gave is viable.
“We know at least from the feasibility study that the situation right now is challenging, and there isn’t a clear indication about when things will improve,” Shepherd said. “We’re looking at making a pivot when things improve rather than setting a firm date.”