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Indiana’s 5th law school opens

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Within the Allen County legal community, the opening of Indiana Tech Law School has drawn mixed reaction.

Some lawyers question opening a new law school and see the idea of producing more attorneys in a tight job market as exploiting students, according to David Van Gilder, attorney at Van Gilder & Trzynka P.C., in Fort Wayne. On the other hand, some are supportive and positive about the school. As of opening day, many are ambivalent.
 

school-15col.jpg Indiana Tech Law School Dean Peter Alexander (IL Photo/ Kelly Lucas)

The reality is Indiana’s fifth law school has built a new facility, hired faculty, enrolled students and started classes, so the local bar association has really one option. It needs to support and collaborate with the school, Van Gilder said, or the local bar will be cast in a very negative light.

Indiana Tech Law School Dean Peter Alexander has noticed growing support from the bench and bar. About 75 local judges and attorneys have signed on to be mentors for the students, and non-profits and government organizations have offered more than 100 externship placement possibilities for second- and third-year students.

Of course, the students will ultimately determine the success of the school. As the doors open, Indiana Tech Law School has 30 students in its inaugural class.

“It is possible they won’t attract enough people to make an economic go it,” Van Gilder said. This is a “hard time to start a law school.”

Sustaining a 5th school

In the blogosphere, the criticism of Indiana Tech has been unrelenting. High-profile professionals along with many disgruntled law school graduates have questioned Indiana Tech’s motives and implored students not to attend.

Even the board of directors was skeptical of the idea when Indiana Tech President Arthur Snyder first approached them about three years ago, said Robert Wagner, vice chair of the board.

However, as the board studied the idea, consulting outside counsel and reviewing the finding from a feasibility committee, the board arrived at the conclusion that northeast Indiana has a need for its own law school, said Wagner, attorney at Shambaugh Kast Beck & Williams LLP.

He conceded the review was conducted before employment rates of law graduates declined and the burden of student loans hit the news. Not all the Allen County attorneys the board talked to were optimistic about the school.

Still, the board wanted to make post-graduate options available to Indiana Tech students as well as give northeast Indiana students who want to become lawyers the option of attending law school close to home.

Wells Circuit Court Judge Kenton Kiracofe can understand the benefit of having a university within driving distance. The Allen County native attended IPFW as an undergraduate because going away to school would have been too expensive. Still, he conceded his feelings are mixed about opening the new law school.

“I hope the law school is successful,” the judge said. “My concern is just the cost of going to law school. Having a regional law school doesn’t solve that.”

Hands-on curriculum

Alexander has tirelessly countered the ongoing denunciations, maintaining Indiana Tech will be different from the established law schools.

He explained the school is combining best practices from most law schools around the country. Its curriculum involves bringing theory and practice together earlier in the students’ school career and talking about ethics and professionalism at the start rather than waiting until graduation is looming.

“So with no history, no recalcitrant faculty, no administrators saying, ‘Don’t do anything dangerous,’ we have no barriers,” Alexander said. “We decided to go out and find those best practices around the country, add some of our own and bring them all here from the start. So in a way, this is just a grand experiment to see how much creativity a law school can have and be successful.”

The school plans to have seven clinics where students will have the opportunity to do a range of legal work from mediating disputes between undergraduates and writing wills for Indiana Tech faculty to filing the intellectual property paperwork and helping an Indiana Tech engineering student or professor bring his or her invention to market.

Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Paul Mathias noted how the school will fare is uncertain, but its approach toward involving the legal community is different and poses a stronger paradigm than many other law schools.

A native of Allen County and former Allen Superior Court judge, Mathias welcomed the school, saying it adds substantial value and pride to the local legal community.

“It’s an exciting development for Allen County and Fort Wayne and the presiding bar there,” Mathias said. “But more importantly, it’s an exciting alternative to traditional law schools. It is certainly an alternative that merits consideration from folks who are thinking about attending law school.”

Van Gilder agreed, saying he believes Indiana Tech’s emphasis on clinical work as well as the school providing mentors for all students is probably the best way to educate attorneys.

As for those who question the school’s approach, Van Gilder pointed to his own experience teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne.

Over the three-year period he has taught graduate-level courses in the environmental health program, students enrolling for online classes have doubled. While he was skeptical of putting college classes on the web, he admitted it has become the trend in higher education.


school2-15col.jpg Guadalupe Luna, professor of law at Indiana Tech Law School, said she wanted to be a part of the new law school because of its commitment to ethics and to giving students more hands-on experience. (IL Photo/ Kelly Lucas)

In light of that experience, Van Gilder concludes just because something new has come along, that does not mean it can’t be successful.

Lawyers and jobs

Indiana Tech founding faculty member Guadalupe Luna countered the common complaint against the school that it will be bringing more lawyers into a market that has little need by arguing that the data showing fewer jobs for attorneys is skewed.

Jobs at the big law firms that were regularly filled by law school graduates have dried up but, Luna said, the need for legal representation among people at the bottom and middle of the socioeconomic scale remains strong.

The school’s holistic approach will prepare students for “defending the common man” as well as working in law firms by teaching the core doctrine along with showing students, first hand, the impact court decisions can have on people’s lives.

Van Gilder echoed Luna by saying there are not too many lawyers but rather too many lawyers not doing the right things. Allen County and the surrounding counties have plenty of work for attorneys, but the caveat is not all of it is paying work.

Of the 800 members of the Allen County Bar Association, he said, just 180 offer their services for the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana, Inc. The influx of graduates from Indiana Tech Law School might provide more volunteer attorneys.

From his bench in Wells County, Kiracofe has seen both too few attorneys and too many people representing themselves. The root of the problem is not a lack of lawyers but rather the economics of the county. Few residents can afford attorneys whether they are available or not, and those practicing law have to get paid for their services in order to support themselves.

Auburn attorney W. Erik Weber of Mefford Weber and Blythe P.C. believes the new law school can be a positive for the lawyers who have established offices in the region. The firms may be able to hire the Indiana Tech law students as interns during the school year. At present, the distance to northeast Indiana makes taking an internship while classes are in session impractical for students studying at law schools in other parts of the state.

Many opportunities for volunteering and interning may be available to Indiana Tech law students, but what about paying jobs after they graduate?

Van Gilder pointed out finding a position is hard right now for graduates of any law school. The key to getting a job is being able to do the work without needing a lot of handholding.

After graduation from American University, Van Gilder worked in a windowless office doing discovery, researching and writing briefs. Yet he did not have the practical skills to write a will or work on a domestic violence case or help a business owner with an immigration issue.

Today, as someone who hires attorneys, Van Gilder said he prefers lawyers who can talk to people, have empathy and know their way around a courtroom. Usually the candidates who fit that description, he said while admitting he was making a sweeping generalization, did not graduate at the top of their law school class and often had to have a job to pay the tuition.

If Indiana Tech law graduates applied to his firm for a job, Van Gilder said he would interview them and gauge their skills just as he would any graduate from any other law school.•

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  • Fantasy Land
    Anonymous's previous comments are 100% on the mark. From an atty. whose practice is 30-40% pro bono at any given time. Most attys need to feed their family oatmeal in the morning and the grocery store will not give pro bono attys free or discounted food similarly other merchants will not give pro bono litigators discounts, so how does such an atty purchase the material goods that are minimally necessary accoutrements of life if they service an inordinate amount of clients at the "bottom and middle of the socioeconomic scale". They may be able to do so if they have no intention of ever providing above minimally decent housing and other incidents of well being for themselves or a family. There are a substantial number of attys doing pro bono work but what is the limit of that work for each atty? Maybe these students will find out after they have to try and find good paying positions just to pay back the loans. Hopefully in this tight job market the administrators are pointing this out to the students. The lofty goals expressed by the new schools spokespersons may end up in the 'cloud'. 30 years of Atticus Finch lawyering can lead to BK (except for school loans).
  • mistake
    I have practicing law for 20 years and have never seen such a tight job market. I do not think it will get better for a long time. Online legal services will continue to erode the work available for the type of lawyers this school will produce. I know an attorney who graduated at the top of her class 5 years ago with $100,000 in debt. It will take her 20 years to pay if off because she is so poorly paid. This law school is a very stupid idea. I feel sorry for the kids who go here. School officials who pushed this should be ashamed.
  • Indiana State Bar Association
    The ISBA should be disbanded for not opposing this law school. With the saturation of the job market, these kids are going to be graduating with $100K plus in debt and no jobs. The fact that a school official is talking about the school producing "volunteer (unpaid) attorneys" is outrageous. Hopefully people will have better sense than to enroll in Indiana Tech.
  • Fantasy Land
    "Van Gilder echoed Luna by saying there are not too many lawyers but rather too many lawyers not doing the right things. Allen County and the surrounding counties have plenty of work for attorneys, but the caveat is not all of it is paying work[. . .]The influx of graduates from Indiana Tech Law School might provide more volunteer attorneys." This is about the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I do not think it's unreasonable for students who graduate at the top of their college class, then spend three years and over $100,000 (tuition only, plus whatever they spend on living expenses and whatever loan debt they carry from their undergraduate studies, plus the lost opportunity costs because they could have instead worked full-time for those three years and gained experience while earning a salary) to attend law school, to expect something more than just a, "Hey, why don't you guys just do some volunteer work? The problem isn't the job market; it's your mindset. You're doing the wrong thing by expecting to actually *gasp* be paid for your work." One of the first things adults ask each other upon meeting in a social situation for the first time is, "What do you do for a living?" Yes, because the primary reason that people who are not retired, disabled, or independently wealthy work is to survive. . . to earn a living. No normal adult wants to be 25+ and still living with their parents (assuming their parents are even still alive or amenable to having them live there). Last I checked, people need to put a roof over their head, food on the table, clothes on their back. . . not to mention stuff like daycare costs, health/dental/vision insurance, life insurance, car insurance, car payments, retirement savings, etc. Oh yeah, and those monumental student loan payments, too. Maybe Allen County works kind of like that book "The Secret"-- if you just change your outlook and stop thinking about your debt and obligations, and instead just focus on happy things like volunteer work, you will guide your destiny and the world will provide for you.
    • Article on Indiana Tech
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