Three years after Belmont University announced they would open a law school, school officials say the fledgling graduate program is meeting expectations, even though fewer students are applying to enter the program.
“By all standards, we are doing well,” said Provost Dr. Thomas Burns. “We’ve met or exceeded all of the goals we have set forth in either quality or enrollment numbers.”
Those numbers, “conservative” by Burns’ estimate, were based on figures from law school that opened in the southeast in the past 50 years. Both the charter and current first-year class surpassed these goals, as their median LSAT score of 154 and class GPA’s of 3.29 and 3.33 surpassed the school’s benchmark of 152 and 3.0.
The 216 students now in the program also exceeded the school’s initial benchmark of 210, even though Burns said application to the school dropped 26 percent from year to year.
“We had realistic and conservative goals, and I think that has made all the difference,” Burns said.
Now, the school is moving on to its next order of business – receiving American Bar Association accreditation. A group from the accrediting body is on campus this week for an on-site visit to a law school confident in its students and accomplishments.
If the school gains provision accreditation, its students will be allowed to take the bar exam in any state they choose. Currently, only Tennessee will let Belmont take the bar that will certify them as lawyers in the state.
The ABA will not announce their decision until next spring, well after recruiting for the incoming class of 2016 will start.
If the university gets provisional status, they then must demonstrate they are “in full compliance with [ABA] standards” for the next three to five years to be considered for full accreditation, according to the body’s website. ABA officials will also return to campus in the second, fourth and fifth year of the process.
“It’ll take awhile till we are where every other law school in America is in, but that’s because the ABA wants to make sure we haven’t put on all the window treatments for the first visit and then let it all fall apart,” Burns said.
To receive full accreditation, the law school must show it can meet marks for academic credentials, faculty, finances, administration and even library resources.
“We know that getting ABA accreditation will change our ability to recruit,” Burns said.
Now, he said the university can only recruit students who said they were interested in attending non-accrediting school.
“The number of students that we can gain information on is relatively small,” he said. “Only a small number will check that non-accredited law school box.”
Even with the limited number of students Belmont can reach out to, the school is also dealing with a nationwide trend of fewer people applying to law school. Last year, the school saw 26 percent fewer applications than for their charter class in 2011, said Burns.
“Part of it is a recognition that many disciplines, law included, can have a cycler processes,” Burns said.
That decrease in applications also happened at other law schools nationwide, according a report from the Wall Street Journal.
Another Journal report accumulated data showing how many law graduates had jobs that required their graduate degree a year after graduation. That number shrank from 85 percent to 62 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Despite the drop in applicants both locally and nationally, Burns said the school is committed to meeting their initial standards and believe it can become Middle Tennessee’s law school.
“Whether the overall national picture has changed, the local picture hasn’t,” Burns said. “There still is a substantial need as our research indicated for lawyers or legally trained professionals in Middle Tennessee or this region.”
Since the school began exploring the possibility of the law program, it has repeatedly cited a study saying the state of Tennessee does not produce the number of in-state students who take the bar exam that other states do.
It also references a study saying that Nashville’s two other law schools, the nationally-recognized Vanderbilt Law School and the non ABA-accredited Nashville School of Law, are not are not producing enough lawyers in two of Nashville’s most notable industries.
“Think about it this way, some of the major drivers in the Nashville community are health care and the music industry,” said Charles Trost, the associate dean for external relations. “And with what Belmont does already have in place, I think it’s a natural connection for the law school to step in and become a part of what Belmont is already begun in those areas.”
The program has also focused on building relationships with local firms to help with student placement in student externships and eventually, jobs.
“It certainly takes time to do it right and so far we are doing it right,” said Trost. “We have very good relationships with the lawyers and judges in Nashville community and to a lesser extent out into other parts of Middle Tennessee.”