Around the country, fewer people are applying to law school. Then there’s the UNT Dallas College of Law.
It expected about 350 applications for the inaugural class — and got more than 600.
“‘Holy cow’ was our reaction,” said Royal Furgeson, a retired U.S. district judge and founding dean of the new law campus. “It tells you there’s a pent-up demand for a law school here.”
The law school, part of the University of North Texas System, has enrolled about 140 students to date. Classes start in August in the UNT System building across from Main Street Garden in downtown Dallas.
UNT’s new law school has drawn interest in large part because of its low cost. Full-time, in-state students pay just $14,040 a year in tuition, plus about $500 a year in fees. That’s far less than what the state’s other law schools charge. For instance, the new Texas A&M School of Law (formerly run by Texas Wesleyan) charges $33,000 a year in tuition and fees. Texas Tech’s law school charges $23,000.
Furgeson said UNT Law plans to stay affordable by keeping costs down in many areas, from faculty salaries to the law library. And it doesn’t plan to give fat scholarships to students with great test scores but no financial need.
Some law schools do that to move up in the national rankings, Furgeson said. “We’re not going to chase LSAT scores or GPAs,” he said. “We’re also looking at other things, like overcoming obstacles.”
UNT Law expects to enroll a diverse group of students in full- and part-time programs. A large share of incoming students are minorities. Many of them are older, with careers and families.
Melinda Chaney is one of those nontraditional students. She said she’s wanted to be a lawyer since she was 8 years old and was hooked on shows like Perry Mason and Matlock. She finished high school in Dallas in three years, then college in Nevada in three more years.
Then, as Chaney put it, life happened. She moved back to Dallas to take care of family and got married at 21. Now she’s 34, an insurance agent with a husband and three children.
Southern Methodist University’s law school was too expensive. Texas A&M Law, in Fort Worth, was too far away.
Chaney said the new UNT law school is “a dream” for her. As part of the inaugural class, she will get an extra $1,500 discount each year, bringing the tuition down to $12,540.
“For three years we’re locked in. That’s amazing,” Chaney said.
As a brand-new law school, UNT is not accredited. It must operate for one year before it can apply for provisional accreditation. School leaders say they’ll make every effort to obtain that status.
It’s a risk Chaney and others are willing to take.
Craig Smith plans to attend part time and keep working in code compliance for the city of Dallas.
“I would never be able to go to another school that charges $40,000 a year. I would be laden with this burden of debt,” Smith said.
At UNT Law, Smith said, he can afford to keep working in the public sector and doing what he loves — helping solve community problems, whether it’s graffiti or illegal dumping.
And that’s another goal the leaders of UNT Law have: producing lawyers to represent the middle class, small businesses and other groups.
“If the law is going to work, it means that people need to have access to a lawyer. And enough people don’t have access,” Furgeson said. “It’s a real challenge for the profession.”