There’s a story that Judge Royal Furgeson likes to tell, about a young boy whose brother was killed in an accident with an 18-wheeler. The parents spoke no English, so it fell to the boy to navigate the aftermath. He sought out a lawyer, who shepherded the family through the tragedy. Now, years later, the boy wants to help others in a similar way, so he applied to start law school this fall.
Not just any law school, but the newly established University of North Texas College of Law in downtown Dallas.
When Furgeson retired last year from his prestigious post on the federal bench to become founding dean of the UNT Dallas College of Law, he wasn’t interested in maintaining the status quo. He wanted his law school to subscribe to an unconventional ethos — to cultivate lawyers as public servants. The method? Eschew national rankings, deflate tuition, welcome the “rejects” and teach real skills. “We want to train lawyers that want to be lawyers for the right reasons,” Furgeson says.
Not an easy task in an era in which lawyers are loathed, and frivolous litigation seems like the great American pastime. But Furgeson says most applicants for this fall’s inaugural class have little interest in becoming lawyers in “tall buildings” or high-powered firms. They’re pursuing a different kind of career. “They’re coming to law school to make a difference somewhere in their communities,” he says. “They see lawyers as people who can go to bat for others, who won’t stand idly by while some injustice happens. They kind of see us as caped crusaders.”
At 72, Furgeson, a former Texas Tech University basketball player who waxes philosophical in a syrupy West Texas drawl, has so much energy that he uses a standing desk in his Dallas office. The extra spunk will come in handy.
Launching a new law school presents plenty of obstacles, especially considering the droves of law graduates who face massive debt and dismal job prospects each year. It’s what drives the commonly accepted consensus that America has too many lawyers already. (See “Why Attending Law School Is the Worst Career Decision You’ll Ever Make” in Forbes or “No New Lawyers! Economy Can’t Handle Them” in The Fiscal Times.) Furgeson disagrees. “My view is, there needs to be more lawyers,” he says.
The legal industry has never been able to offer sufficient resources to the poor, he says, and neither has it properly served the middle class or small businesses. “The profession needs to come to grips with the fact that we’re not providing legal services to a vast majority of our people,” he says. “You think of how many people are struggling out there, how many people are working at the margins. Something bad happens to the wage earner and it immediately becomes a terrible problem, so there’s a massive need in our community for better and more access to legal services.”
Craig Smith, 31, will join UNT’s inaugural class for just this reason. After traveling throughout his 20s, Smith settled in Dallas and landed a job in the city’s Department of Code Compliance. He felt it was one of the most effective ways to transform people’s lives and the community around them, but he quickly encountered a troubling obstacle. “There’s quite a big disconnect between the person that’s writing the code for the community and the end user who might not even have a high school diploma,” he says.
Smith is pursuing a law degree so he can make the legal structure more accessible, and empower people who are overlooked or marginalized. He isn’t aiming for a promotion; rather, he wants to better serve people through his current position. “I saw an opportunity to give back to my community,” he says.
The key to cultivating such lionhearted lawyers lies in UNT’s innovative approach, which begins with rock-bottom tuition. “Affordability has to be a core value,” says Ellen Pryor, who left an endowed professorship at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Dedman School of Law in Dallas for the opportunity to launch a new movement at UNT. “We have to make this a thriving value. It’s essential to everything.”
Smith says he never considered applying elsewhere. “Being able to go to law school, continue working and not having to fear debt is unparalleled,” he says.
According to the American Bar Association, the average annual cost of attending a public law school skyrocketed from $2,006 in 1985 to $23,214 in 2012 — an increase of more than 1,000 percent in less than 20 years. (Private law school costs jumped from $7,526 to $40,634 over the same period.) Where does this leave students?
As a judge, Furgeson says he’s witnessed many young graduates abandoning public service after a year because their debt was overwhelming — often topping $200,000. “I was very concerned that earnest, sincere young people who really wanted to be lawyers were starting out with such crushing debt that they didn’t have a lot of alternatives,” he says.
His aim is to limit students’ financial obligations, so they won’t feel the need to score a job at a big firm. “Our goal is to tell them there’s another way, to talk to them about other opportunities, about how rewarding law can be when you represent people in your community, neighbors and so forth,” he says.
It probably won’t require much convincing. Furgeson and his admissions staff are relying less on GPA and LSAT scores — the gold standard for most law school admissions because of the impact high scores have on schools’ national rankings — in favor of recommendations and life experience. They’re actively recruiting a different kind of student, those with meaningful life experiences that are ingrained in their communities. “We have to understand there are so many other traits that determine success in life than how you do on a test, and that’s what we’re trying to find,” Furgeson says. “When people don’t do well on a test, we’re not stopping there. We’re looking behind that. It’s important to me to see if we can give people a chance.”
When UNT’s maiden class arrives this fall, students will be indoctrinated with a unique approach to legal education, one that emphasizes practical skills over theoretical knowledge. The intent is to equip graduates to handle cases in high-need areas. To ensure that students are mastering objectives, teachers will also utilize frequent assessments, rather than giving a single exam at the conclusion of each course, as is common practice.
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UNT is also forgoing endowed professorships and placing less emphasis on faculty research. The money that would typically go toward funding endowed faculty positions — which other schools use to attract stars in the field — will be funneled into need-based student scholarships instead. “We’re going after really good teachers that want to teach,” Furgeson says.
This philosophy is what drew Pryor to UNT after 25 years at SMU. There, she was teaching an upper-level course using a textbook she co-authored, but found herself asking, “Why are we teaching the same old way?”
Pryor has been instrumental in charting the path of the new endeavor at UNT — she’s the school’s new associate dean for academic affairs — but she’s quick to note that it’s a first step in a longer journey. “We didn’t set out to reform legal education. We just set out to start our own law school,” she says.
And while Furgeson stands strong behind the school’s philosophy, he’s not without a little trepidation. “People are giving us three years of their lives and we have got to do this well,” he says.
But, he confirms with a wink and a grin, “I actually think it’ll work.”
This post originally appeared on NationSwell.com, a HuffPost Impact partner.