American law is built on precedent. While laws may change over time, consistency in how those laws are interpreted and applied make legal decisions more credible and predictable.
Likewise, no one wants to attend a law school that’s a fly-by-night operation. When law schools hit a rough patch or shut down, the education they provide loses value. Students and alumni may suffer, even if they’ve worked hard to succeed.
Browse law school websites and you’ll see institutions striving to present themselves as rock-solid institutions with distinguished faculty, rising endowments and colossal buildings. Even law schools that claim to be on the cutting edge of legal innovation play up their alumni networks, established programs, press coverage and ties to long-standing universities or other institutions.
[Read: Why Law School Location Matters.]
Does this mean that applicants should be wary of more recently established law schools? The answer is not so simple.
Hits and Misses
Some law schools established in relatively recent years have quickly climbed the U.S. News rankings: The William S. Boyd School of Law of the University of Nevada—Las Vegas, opened in 1998 and is the only American Bar Association-accredited law school in the fast-growing state; Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law opened in Philadelphia in 2006; and the University of California–Irvine’s School of Law opened in 2009.
All three are well regarded, with high bar passage rates and strong offerings.
Other law schools have found stronger footing after major changes. The Texas A&M University School of Law, now one of the highest-ranked law schools in Texas per U.S. News, was founded in 1989 as the Dallas/Fort Worth School of Law in Irving, Texas. The school was acquired by Texas Wesleyan University in 1992, moved to its current Fort Worth location five years later and was acquired by Texas A&M in 2013.
However, many recently established or restructured law schools have struggled to stay accredited and financially solvent. Some have collapsed, like the private, for-profit Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida, which opened in 1996 and is in the process of closing.
How to Assess New Law Schools
Which new law schools might emerge as the next UC–Irvine or languish like Florida Coastal?
There’s no way to know for sure. Many factors contribute to law school success. Some warning signs are obvious only in retrospect, and others are hard for outsiders to assess. An unexpected challenge like a leadership scandal or economic downturn could topple a seemingly stable school.
The safest bet is to consider new law schools like unaccredited or low-ranking law schools. There are many reasons why applicants might choose such schools, like their location, cost and accessibility. They may be more willing than other schools to offer flexible arrangements to serve nontraditional students.
In contrast, new or recently established law schools that have sound finances, public ties and relationships with larger institutions may be a safer bet. Two newer law schools serve as good examples.
The University of North Texas—Dallas College of Law, which opened in 2014, became fully accredited in 2022. While the law school may be new, the University of North Texas is a public research university dating back more than 130 years, with a sizeable endowment.
Opening in fall 2022, the Jacksonville University College of Law in Florida is part of a long-standing private university. The law school received funding from the city of Jacksonville, and many regional stakeholders have stated their commitment to reestablishing a law school in the area after the closure of Florida Coastal School of Law.
Neither of these law schools is guaranteed to thrive, but they may have the resources to withstand growing pains.
Before taking a chance on a newly established law school, applicants should ask admissions officers questions about the school’s administration, faculty, future plans and sources of financing. They should make sure that they will receive strong support after graduation to make up for the lack of a deep-seated alumni network.
The future may be uncertain, but good lawyers do their research before making a decision.
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