Amy Thompson was ready to enroll when she first heard about Indiana Tech’s plans for a new law school.
The banking professional, who completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Indiana Tech, had wanted to be an attorney since she was 18 years old, and the coming law school seemed like the opportunity to finally pursue her dream.
Thompson, 36, became a member of the inaugural class at Indiana Tech Law School and is enthusiastic about her studies. Outside of the classroom, she has completed an externship in the Fort Wayne Housing Authority, served an internship with the Indiana Department of Child Services and worked as a summer associate in the Office of the Indiana Attorney General.
Still, when the law school failed to obtain provisional accreditation earlier this year, Thompson briefly considered transferring. Students who had finished two years of classes could have moved to another school without having to repeat the first year of coursework. However, after researching her options, Thompson decided to remain at her alma mater.
“I stayed because I feel like I made a commitment to the school,” Thompson said. “I believe in what they are doing.”
As Indiana Tech Law School begins its third year, it is welcoming a very small class of first-year students and, anticipating its second attempt at gaining ABA approval will be successful, positioning its third-year students to take the state bar exam.
In addition, the Fort Wayne school is boasting about Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller joining its teaching roster. The state’s top lawyer will be teaching a class on Indiana constitutional law to second- and third-year students.
“We’re just proceeding along,” said the law school’s dean, Charles Cercone. “We’re very optimistic about the year.”
The incoming Class of 2018 is comprised of 15 students who have a median LSAT score of 151 and a median GPA of 3.42. This is the smallest group yet to enroll in the Fort Wayne law school which opened in 2013. The institution’s first two classes each had about 30 students, and the Class of 2017 came with a median LSAT of 148.
The law school has started the accreditation process again, submitting its reapplication in late August. Based on feedback from the ABA, the school has developed and is implementing its curriculum for all three years.
The law school is scheduled for a site visit from an ABA accrediting team Oct 4-7. In April, Cercone will make a presentation to the ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
Second-year student Tamzin Cheshire was concerned when the school was denied provisional accreditation. The 41-year-old mother of three enrolled in law school after a 10-year career as a registered nurse in Philadelphia and Fort Wayne.
A desire to get into the policy side of health care inspired her to study law while the mission of the school and its focus on practical skills development convinced her to enroll at Indiana Tech. Cheshire said touring the facility and meeting the professors made her comfortable with taking the risk of attending an unaccredited law school.
The denial from the ABA came as a shock.
“I think it was a disappointment for all of us because, from our perspective, the school is doing a fantastic job,” Cheshire said.
During the first year, Cheshire and her classmates worked on the same hypothetical case in all the courses. Creating a retention agreement, drafting the complaint and finally arguing summary judgment at a mock hearing were all part of the work.
That type of hands-on assignment leads Cheshire to believe the law school is creating a new model of education that will prepare students to practice law in today’s environment where mentoring and training on-the-job are no longer routine.
In recruiting new students, Cercone told the potential candidates about the accreditation process along with explaining the school’s program and mission.
“I’m sure that the accreditation uncertainty entered into a lot of students’ thinking,” he said.
Following the denial, law school leaders were concerned that students starting their third year would opt to transfer to an accredited law school. However, Cercone said only one member of the Class of 2016 decided to leave for that reason.
Shortly after classes began Aug. 24, the law school was able to pass along some good news to students who were preparing to graduate in June: They would be able to apply for the bar exam.
Indiana does not allow graduates of unaccredited law schools to apply for or take the bar exam. However, the Indiana Supreme Court issued an order Aug. 28 which carved out an exception for Indiana Tech, enabling its third-year students to sign up for the test that will be given in July. However, the law school must still receive provisional accreditation before its students can sit for the exam.
Thompson acknowledged some people have questioned her decision to attend Indiana Tech Law School. But working in the attorney general’s office dealing with bankruptcy, taxation and collection matters, she became more confident about the education she is receiving. She knew how to handle her assignments and saw her finished product stack up favorably with the work done by the students from other law schools.
After graduation, Thompson, a mother of four, has plans to return to the banking industry, working as an attorney in trusts. Yet, she is pulled by the work she did for government family service agencies. She met people she would not have otherwise encountered and was able to pursue her passion of helping children.
The leap into the public sector would not be difficult since she continues to work for the housing authority as a hearing officer.
“I love it because it’s rewarding and I’m learning something new,” Thompson said.
Cheshire thought about transferring but, like Thompson, decided to stay. She believes the faculty has made the changes necessary to secure provisional accreditation this next go-around.
Both Cheshire and Thompson said if the law school comes up short a second time, they will delay their graduation rather than go to another school to finish. They maintained they would go back to work until accreditation comes and then re-enroll to graduate.
Their personal attachment to the school runs deep.
“I walk into this building, and I feel like I’m at home,” Cheshire said.•