The campaign to establish a UWT law school is a chance for the legal community to give back

Medical schools don’t just sustain the overall supply of doctors; they also guarantee nearby clinics and hospitals an abundance of medical students and young physicians. Computer science institutes and engineering schools do likewise – tech enterprises in the neighborhood get their pick of the fresh talent.

The same goes for law schools. That’s why South Sound communities – particularly the region’s legal firms and businesses – ought to be enthusiastically scraping together the $2 million-plus needed to create a new law school at the University of Washington Tacoma.

The school is one of the best educational ideas in the area’s history. But the Tacoma Law Foundation, the Pierce County group putting it together, needs donations to make it happen.

Legal education already has a well-established record of success in the South Sound. The University of Puget Sound ran a flourishing, profitable law school in downtown Tacoma from 1972 into the 1990s. It was a core part of the region’s educational system. It produced many of the area’s best private attorneys, deputy prosecutors, judges and other legal professionals.

But UPS sold the school in 1993 to Seattle University. The impact of that loss demonstrates the need for the proposed law program at the UWT. When the UPS School of Law finally closed its Tacoma doors in 1999, the region’s law firms, courts, public agencies, nonprofits and businesses suddenly lost their access to a ready supply of bright new attorneys, clerks and apprentices.

They immediately found it harder to fill positions – because there was no longer a path to a legal degree anywhere between Portland and Seattle.

Recruiting young legal talent will soon become harder yet. Though the United States as a whole has an over-abundance of attorneys, the numbers look different in the South Sound. Many of the area’s lawyers are baby boomers now looking at retirement. Law firms will be feeling a serious pinch by the time a UWT law school would begin granting degrees in five years or so.

The UWT program would be precisely tailored to the region’s needs. The UW runs one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools, and its UWT affiliate would offer the same quality of instruction and valuable degrees. It would teach specialties – such as international trade and environmental law – in particular demand here. After it opens, hopefully in 2015 or 2016, law-intensive enterprises in the South Sound will once again be able to tap into a local pool of apprentices, interns, volunteers and prospective recruits.

But first, the money.

The Tacoma Law Foundation and the UW School of Law need $2.5 million for startup costs, which will cover instruction and other expenses for the first three years. (After that, 90 students will be paying tuition and the program will be self-sustaining.)

The Legislature has already earmarked $400,000. Most of the rest will have to come from the legal community. The support of both large law firms and leading smaller firms will be especially crucial.

Most successful attorneys launched their careers with some form of community help, including financial aid, state-subsidized tuition and independent gifts to the schools they attended. Tacoma’s opportunity for a rebirth of legal education now needs their generosity. This is the chance to pay it forward.