A city can lose a law school in less than a year, as Tacoma can testify from excruciating experience.
But a city could never hope to regain a law school in so short a time, and Tacoma knows that from experience, too.
It was late 1993 when the University of Puget Sound announced the infamous sale of its law school. By the next summer, the nameplates already were stamped “Seattle University” (though the campus didn’t move north until 1999).
UPS law faculty and students hadn’t even finished moving to Seattle when Vicky Carwein, then chancellor of University of Washington Tacoma, said UWT would form a working group to explore filling the local law school void. That was three chancellors and more than 17 years ago.
Now it’s clear the long wait will continue, apparently past the turn of the next decade.
University leaders and local law-school boosters met with The News Tribune Editorial Board last week to explain why they’re tapping the brakes on plans to open a law school. (The group included local attorney Valarie Zeeck, wife of TNT publisher and ed board member David Zeeck.)
Members of the Tacoma Law Foundation, having raised $2.1 million in pledged donations and $400,000 from the state, once thought classes might start as early as this fall. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t pencil out to open before 2020.
Meanwhile, Tacomans might feel pangs of envy looking east, where university investments in doctoral programs are going gangbusters. In Spokane, the state has doubled down with this summer’s opening of the Washington State University medical school and expansion of a UW medical training program.
It’s hard to overestimate the prestige, intellectual vigor and economic development that would accompany a downtown Tacoma law school.
The benefits transcend socioeconomic boundaries. South Sounders trapped in a justice gap without means to pay for legal counsel could get help from free clinics and other law school outreach. Placebound adults and children from working-class neighborhoods, given a chance at an affordable and accessible legal education, could fulfill dreams of becoming attorneys and judges.
There are many reasons we wish a Tacoma law school could open tomorrow, but the cautious approach being taken by UWT and its partners makes sense.
“The worst thing we could ever do is start a program that’s unsustainable,” Herb Simon, a Tacoma businessman and UW regent, told the ed board Tuesday.
An outside consultant’s report concludes a law school would lose $62 million in its first decade, if it were to open next year. (The analysis is based on tuition alone; it doesn’t account for state funds or private philanthropy that normally support such an effort.)
The report illuminates a perfect storm of factors that would give anyone pause — two short-term issues (slumping law school enrollment and static demand for lawyers) and one long-term (strict accreditation standards from the American Bar Association).
From 2010 to 2015, applications to Washington’s two private law schools dropped by 11 percent a year, worse than the national average. (UW Seattle, a Top 30-ranked law school, avoided the steep decline.) They’re projected to pull out of the funk gradually, but Tacoma would do well to closely monitor supply and demand.
Taking more time will help UW solve a puzzle: how to attract a critical mass of at least 20 qualified students to a small-market law school before it secures accreditation.
For at least a few years, UWT would have to operate a financially solvent program while charging deeply discounted tuition; students would have to gamble that the law school wins accreditation by the time they’re ready to take the bar exam.
This will not be an easy needle to thread. Many steady hands will be needed as officials lay the groundwork for an economically viable and educationally credible law school, which eventually would confer around 70 diplomas a year.
UW officials and political leaders must plan early to request a financial lift from the Legislature. Philanthropists must be ready to pitch in, too.
The legal community should be generous with time-and-talent support — establishing scholarships and internships, filling adjunct teaching jobs and providing post-graduate opportunities for budding lawyers.
A planned expansion of law-and-justice undergraduate offerings at UWT in the next few years will help gauge when this city is ripe for a full-fledged law school.
Don’t let Tacoma’s blue-collar reputation fool you; this community boasts enough academic horsepower to have developed first-rate schools of business and technology at UWT. It is well placed to grow its own attorneys in specialties such as tribal, military and cybersecurity law.
Boosters also can capitalize on Tacoma’s proud independent streak. Now that UW officials have pivoted to a non-branch campus model, outside Seattle’s shadow and accreditation umbrella, the UWT law school will stand or fall on its own.
Though it won’t welcome its first class until sometime after 2020, at least it will arrive there with a plan for sustainability.
Only then will civic leaders be able to raise their glasses and confidently speak three Latin words, echoing the champagne toast given by the Seattle University president after buying our law school.
“Ad multos annos,” he said.
For many years to come.