UW Tacoma law school vision remains years away

Feasibility study says UW Tacoma law would be an expensive proposition; officials pause plans to proceed.
Feasibility study says UW Tacoma law would be an expensive proposition; officials pause plans to proceed. Staff file, 2015

If you share the years-old vision of adding a law school to the growing University of Washington Tacoma campus, prepare to wait a few more years.

A newly released study has found trends in law school applications and available jobs that persuaded officials to wait a few years longer than they hoped to try to restore postgraduate legal education to the South Sound.

Because a UW Tacoma law school — like most public universities’ graduate-school programs, including the UW law school in Seattle — wouldn’t pay for itself, backers of the plan said they want to be sure the school will be sustainable enough to justify investing an estimated $62 million over a decade to get the school started, stabilized and accredited.

That means hopes of opening the doors to students in 2019 have been set aside, and 2021 is tentatively eyed as a potential date to start moving ahead.

“Nobody wants to do it unless we’re going to do it successfully,” UW Tacoma Chancellor Mark Pagano said.

The school’s proponents, including community and university leaders, insist a law school’s benefits to the South Sound justify waiting out the difficult timing.

“We know we’re going to crawl, we’re going to walk, then we’re going to run,” said Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County, who has led fundraising for a Tacoma law school. “We’re building a 500-year-plus institution.”

In addition to pausing the project, the feasibility study conducted by former University of Denver law school dean Martin Katz has also helped shape how the school will operate.

The school was originally contemplated as a branch campus of the UW law school in Seattle, but logistical problems — including an American Bar Association rule that would require students to take a significant percentage of classes in Seattle — altered that plan.

The new concept is for a stand-alone law school at UW Tacoma that would enroll about 70 students a year, with lower tuition and entrance requirements than UW’s law school has in Seattle. By comparison, the Seattle UW lawschool enrolls about 170 students each year.

UW Tacoma’s supporters said the idea isn’t simply to give Tacoma a less-prestigious version of the Seattle UW law school, which frequently scores near the top quartile of national rankings.

In an interview, they described a law school as a utilitarian piece of civic fabric the South Sound has lacked since the University of Puget Sound sold its law school to Seattle University in the 1990s. They plan to have the school primarily cater to South Sound students and give them access to a law career that distance and expense might otherwise prevent.

“We want to train lawyers for the state of Washington,” said Valarie Zeeck, an attorney and supporter of the school who is married to David Zeeck, publisher of The News Tribune. “We don’t need to be the best law school in the country to do that.”

Students could give local firms and companies a nearby source of law interns. Graduates of the school could help fill lower-paying lawyer jobs with state and local governments that debt-laden students from more expensive schools cannot reasonably take, said Margaret Shepherd, chief strategy officer of the University of Washington.

“The community needs this law school,” said Herb Simon, a UW regent from Tacoma.

Several practical realities of opening a brand-new school obstruct its path.

First, there’s money. The feasibility study found that if a UW Tacoma law school opened in 2019 as had been discussed, it would burn through $62 million before 2029, when the school would hope to have its enrollment stabilized at 70 new students a year with accreditation in place.

Afterward, the school would run at a loss of $5.5 million a year because of expenses of higher than the projected tuition income. The difference would have to come from subsidies, public or private. That will mean seeking money from the Legislature to start the school and keep it going.

“Just on tuition alone, this is not a self-sustaining proposition,” Pagano said.

Other graduate programs at the school are subsidized, he said. This includes the Milgard School of Business, which charges a $21,462 annual in-state tuition for its MBA program that the study calculates a law school would mirror.

“All of our programs need to be subsidized by the state, or we can’t have those programs,” Pagano said.

This, Katz said, is not uncommon among public law schools nationally.

“Running at a $5 million a year loss I don’t think would make the school an outlier,” Katz said in an interview.

For the current fiscal year, UW’s existing law school in Seattle is budgeted to take in $11 million in tuition and shoulder operating costs of $25 million. The difference is made up from a $4.5 million payout from the university’s state-subsidized central budget and from gifts, grants and contracts.

Simon said that having a law school could give UW Tacoma a new revenue stream via donations from attorneys who want to make a contribution that benefits their profession.

Some money has already turned up to support the school. A fundraising campaign directed by Valarie Zeeck and Kendall raised $2 million in pledged startup donations for the school, and the Legislature allocated $400,000 to school development costs in the 2015 budget.

To justify the law school’s expense, the law school’s backers need a solid argument the school can provide sustainable benefits.

There is not a reported shortage of lawyers in the state or region. American Bar Association statistics place Washington’s population of lawyers per capita around the middle of the pack nationally.

The study says the state projects to have enough lawyer jobs available — mostly in South Sound positions — for UW Tacoma to enroll up to 79 law students a year a decade from now. But it also says that the current jobs climate is such that only about two-thirds of graduates from Washington state’s three law schools in 2015 found permanent full-time jobs within 10 months.

Such employment prospects have tended to drive down applications. Since 2010, the nation’s law school applications have dropped by an average of 9 percent each year, a rate that isn’t expected to bounce back until early in the 2020s. If UW Tacoma opened a law school that didn’t find enough qualified applicants to meet its goal of enrolling 70 students a year, it would lose more money than projected because of lower tuition income. The alternative would be to lower its standards, which could threaten its accreditation.

The present legal-education climate has already made one upstart law school a victim.

The Indiana Institute of Technology opened its law school in 2013 and anticipated 100 students, largely from a pool its feasibility study described as “many aspiring Hoosier lawyers who are well-qualified but must leave the state” because they couldn’t get into Indiana’s four existing law schools.

That did not happen. Indiana Tech enrolled 28 law students in 2013, far short of its goal. The school was denied accreditation in 2015. Last fall, with just 71 students total in the three-year program, the school announced it would close. The program had lost $20 million.

Katz and Kendall each said UW Tacoma’s law school plan aims toward a different market segment: largely, South Sound residents who aren’t otherwise able to leave the region to go get law degrees.

UW administrators’ plan for the next few years is to watch regional and national law school applications and hiring statistics to determine when the market might be on enough of an upswing to make a new school sustainable. Then they’ll go to the Legislature, pitch a law school as the next way for UW Tacoma to grow, and ask for money to hire professors and set up facilities, including a law library.

The money would come in that summer, and the school could then begin to plan its classes and accept applications.

In the meantime, efforts are ongoing to grow the pool of potential applicants by boosting UW Tacoma’s study programs that often turn out graduates headed for law school. Two such majors — one called politics, philosophy and economics, and the other titled law and policy — had a combined 101 graduates in the 2015-16 year.

When might the law-school building effort formally begin?

“Well, not right now,” Pagano said.

The ballpark date is 2021 to start the accreditation application process. That could easily shift, officials said, depending on what the market looks like.

“We’re in the figure-that-out stage,” Kendall said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally