Law School Feasibility Study Executive Summary

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Background

in 2016, the University of Washington conducted a feasibility study to evaluate the creation of a separately accredited law school at the University of Washington Tacoma. The original motivation for the UWT law school project was a community-driven vision to provide innovative legal education to underserved and place-bound students in the South Sound and develop the next generation of leadership for the South Sound legal community.

The American Bar Association (ABA) requires a feasibility study prior to beginning the formal ABA accreditation process. A nationally recognized legal scholar and former dean of the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, Martin Katz, conducted the study alongside a faculty-led task force.

The feasibility study is now complete. The study includes a detailed assessment of demand for legal education and legal talent at the national, regional and local level. It also includes financial projections for a separately accredited law school and an assessment of non-economic considerations based on community feedback and focus groups.

Findings

The feasibility study establishes sufficient market demand for lawyers in the South Sound to support a class of 70 students per year by 2026. However, current and near term enrollment trends and the market for legal talent are relatively soft, suggesting that an intermediate step to grow the pre-law programming while enrollment and employment rates recover is warranted prior to proceeding with ABA accreditation.

Opportunities

The feasibility study used Washington State Economic Security Department (WA ESD) data to project that there would likely be sufficient jobs openings to enroll a class of 70 students per year by 2026.

The feasibility study also found significant community support for a program that could:

  • Help close the “justice gap”
  • Provide new workforce development opportunities
  • Enhance the economy and spur economic development
  • Support under-served and place-bound Washington state students

In addition, specific areas of program emphasis such as tribal law, military law, cybersecurity, and natural resources law were cited as potential benefits.

Challenges

  • An analysis of application rates to national and Washington State law schools have been in decline over that last 10 years and further declines are anticipated through 2021
  • While WA ESD predicts job growth in the legal sector, 10-month unemployment and under-employment rates for recent law school graduates in the area are high.
  • The study projects the need for ongoing state or philanthropic operating subsidy of between $3-6 million annually. This does not include start-up expenses or any capital facility needs.

Timeline and immediate next steps

The University of Washington remains committed to a law school on the UW Tacoma campus. The feasibility study originally modeled an initial class of 20 students in 2019 based off an assumption of full funding and the traditional academic planning and application cycle. It also, however, noted challenges in student demand and the economic environment. Data suggests that the likelihood of success would be greater if the UW delay moving forward with accreditation until 2021. The university now targets this date. Additional delays may be necessary, and a final reassessment will be required to proceed, but the UW will make every effort to fulfill its commitment.

In the intermediate period, significant and important progress can be made to ensure a quick transition. This includes growing a pre-law program at UWT, working with the South Sound legal community and bar association to address the “justice gap”, and developing programming in areas of high employer need. The university will work with the local community and the Legislature in the intervening years to take the necessary steps to ensure a law school can launch successfully when the time is right.