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Valpo dean’s resignation latest of troubled law school’s woes

March 21, 2018
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Valparaiso Law School dean Andera Lyon won praise from colleagues for her leadership as the school faces severe challenges. Lyon will step down June 1 but will remain as a research professor. (Photo courtesy of Valparaiso Law School)

The notice of dean Andrea Lyon’s impending resignation is the first announcement from Valparaiso Law School since the 138-year-old institution disclosed last year that it is struggling financially and looking for an alternative to continue operating.

Lyon, who was appointed dean in July 2014, will step down June 1. She will remain with the law school as a research professor but will no longer have any administrative responsibilities.

Her appointment marked a new chapter — she was the first woman to lead the northwest Indiana law school. Lyon arrived with academic experience, having been an associate dean at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, and with a national reputation as a criminal defense attorney. In 1979, she became the first woman to serve as lead defense counsel on a death penalty case.

Her time at Valparaiso has been a mix of achievement and setback. The law school enjoyed recognition for its approach to teaching and successively enrolled students who boasted better credentials. However, it went through a faculty buyout and was also publicly sanctioned by the American Bar Association for not complying with admission standards.

Then in November 2017, the university’s board of directors directed the university administration to suspend admissions for 2018 and explore options such as merging with an existing institution, to keep the law school open.

Since then, neither the administration nor the law school have provided any updates. Even the announcement of Lyon’s resignation was muted, issued in two letters dated March 1, and circulated to just students, faculty and staff.

This contrasts with the hiring of Ogilvy Public Relations of Chicago to announce in March 2017 the law school would be shrinking by reducing class sizes and offering buyouts to faculty. Also following the board of directors’ November decision, the university released a statement and made president Mark Heckler available for interviews.

In his letter to students, faculty and staff, Valparaiso University Provost Mark Biermann praised the work Lyon did during her tenure. The law school received an A+ rating and was ranked it seventh for practical training by the National Jurist Magazine and was named one of the top 20 most innovative legal education programs by Prelaw Magazine.

resignation-charts.gif“I deeply appreciate the many contributions that Dean Lyon has made to Valpo, to the Law School and to our students,” Biermann wrote. “We wish her the best of luck as she transitions to the role of research professor.”

David Hollenbeck, a 1974 alumnus and teacher at Valparaiso Law School, also praised Lyon.

Hollenbeck, of counsel at Blachly Tabor Bozik & Hartman, LLC, has been an adjunct faculty member since 1985, teaching courses on municipal finance and local government law. He described Lyon as bringing an “energy and commitment” to the law school.

“I found her to be a dean who worked hard to find solutions to the problems,” he said.

Practical skills

Lyon came after longtime dean Jay Conison left to lead the now-defunct Charlotte School of Law. Conison resigned in March 2013 and Ivan Bodensteiner stepped in as interim dean until Lyon took over.

She could not comment much about her decision to step down or about the law school’s future, only noting the situation would become clearer in six to eight weeks. But she did say her time as dean has been “challenging, exhilarating, frustrating and wonderful.”

Lyon’s mix of experience in the courtroom and in teaching practical skills to law students helped her stand out from the other candidates for the Valparaiso deanship. She was equally impressed with the law school and its revamped curriculum.

Valparaiso adopted the new coursework to better prepare students for the changed market that demanded new lawyers know how to interview clients and write a brief when they are hired. But Valparaiso graduates have struggled to find jobs that require a J.D.

Of the Class of 2016, just 35.6 percent of Valparaiso Law graduates found full-time, long-term legal work, according to data compiled by Law School Transparency. Another 48.1 percent were classified as underemployed, which included graduates either having a part-time or short-term job, pursuing an additional degree, or unemployed and looking for work.

Law School Transparency prepares an employment profile of the graduating classes from just about every law school in the U.S. It uses data collected by the American Bar Association, U.S. News & World Report magazine and the National Association for Law Placement.

Comparatively, the 2016 graduates from Indiana’s other fully-accredited law schools have fared better at finding full-time, long-term, J.D.-required jobs.

The Class of 2016 from Indiana University Maurer School of Law had an employment rate of 69.6 percent and an underemployment rate of 13.6 percent. Similarly, Notre Dame Law School had 76.2 percent employed and 14 percent underemployed while Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law had 48.8 percent employed and 14.1 percent underemployed.

Despite the upheaval at the law school, Hollenbeck said inside the classroom things are continuing as normal. The current crop of students is focused on becoming lawyers.

“My students are as energic and vigorous in their study of the law as I have ever seen them,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of anxiety, bowed heads or discouragement.”

Catching the flu

Rochester attorney Ted Waggoner, who has taught as an adjunct professor at IU Maurer and served as chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Indiana Legal Education Conclave, described Valparaiso’s current troubles as a weak patient catching the flu. Sickness has swept through legal education as applications have decreased and lawyer jobs declined.

Waggoner, managing partner at Peterson Waggoner & Perkins LLP, pointed out that Valparaiso made itself more susceptible to the flu. It admitted students whose LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages indicated they would have difficulty completing their legal studies and passing the bar exam.

Under Bodensteiner, the class that entered in the fall of 2013 was among the largest at 208 students. Yet the class’s median LSAT score was 143 and median GPA was 3.0, according to the ABA’s Standard 509 reports.

Lyon would have served a full year as dean when the class entered in 2015, but the stats were not much better. The 130 students that started classes at Valparaiso had a median LSAT of 145 and a median GPA of 2.93. Since then, the classes have gotten smaller and the scores have risen, culminating in the group that arrived in the fall of 2017 under the shadow of the ABA censure. The class was just 28 students but boasted a median LSAT of 151 and a median GPA of 3.19.

Potential loss

The university was adamant in November that the law school is not closing and the current students will be able to complete their legal education.

Hollenbeck acknowledged “at the 30,000-foot level,” the loss of Valparaiso Law School might not seem troubling, but it would hurt northwest Indiana. The institution has produced “incredibly competent” attorneys who have practiced in the region and served their communities, he said.

Waggoner maintained if Valparaiso becomes part of an out-of-state law school and relocates, Indiana will be harmed. Several Valparaiso graduates go practice in rural areas, which blunts the problem of attorneys leaving and legal help becoming harder to find locally.

“Valparaiso was the supplier for the small communities,” Waggoner said. If the law school closes, he said, it “will accelerate the rural access-to-justice crisis. This will be a real loss in that way.”•

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