Law school’s recognition is a big win for North Texans
UNT-Dallas College of Law’s full accreditation is a crucial victory

Last week, the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law announced it received full accreditation by the American Bar Association.

ABA accreditation is a critical win and affirms that UNT-Dallas College of Law is delivering on its promise to provide quality, accessible and affordable legal education that expands access to justice for all Texans.

William Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” and more than a few Texans might think he was onto something. But in a society built on the rule of law, the legal profession is essential for defending the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Notwithstanding the perception that Texas had too many lawyers, when UNT-Dallas College of Law was created in 2009, the reality was our state did not have enough attorneys.

Between 1969 and 2009, Texas’ population boomed from 11 million to 25 million and demand for legal services rose. However, in those 40 years, the state of Texas did not create a single new ABA-accredited law school.

North Texas grew to become the nation’s largest metropolitan area without a public law school. The bill analysis noted that Texas-trained attorneys were in such short supply that local law firms imported one-third of their lawyers from out-of-state law schools. Moreover, 75% of Texas families who sought legal aid were turned away and 90% of Texans’ civil needs were not being met, according to Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

In 2009, state, local and business leaders came together to create UNT-Dallas College of Law. In the Texas Legislature, a Senate Democrat and a House Republican who each represented downtown Dallas set aside partisan differences to write the legislation that established the school, authorized $40 million in bonds and provided access to a $250 million endowment.

The city of Dallas donated the Dallas Municipal Building, a beaux-arts landmark, to serve as the campus and pledged $14 million.

The Dallas business community assisted with $2 million through a public-private partnership.

Since its birth, UNT-Dallas College of Law has advanced steadily. In 2013, it brought on farsighted administrators, such as founding dean and retired U.S. District Court Judge W. Royal Furgeson Jr. and Associate Dean Ellen Pryor. In 2014, it began teaching students. In 2017, it received provisional ABA accreditation and graduated its inaugural class.

In 2018, it put at the helm Dean Felecia Epps, an inspiring academic, judicial and military trailblazer.

Today, UNT-Dallas College of Law is raising the bar for innovation, accessibility, diversity and affordability. Students gain real-world experience because of its emphasis on practice-ready curriculum. Working professionals can become lawyers thanks to its part-time classes.

The student body, which is over 75% Hispanic and Black, is among the nation’s most diverse. With an annual tuition under $20,000 (less than half of the national average), graduates can afford to give back to Texas through public service.

North Texas has become a dynamic hub for legal education. In addition to UNT-Dallas College of Law, Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas and the Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth are soaring. U.S. News & World Report ranks SMU No. 52, and National Law Journal puts SMU Dedman in its Top 30 for hiring at top-tier firms and its Top 20 for promotions to partner. For timely job placement, Texas A&M’s Class of 2020 ranked No. 10 in the nation.

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” While few Texans envisioned our state and region’s transformative growth, UNT-Dallas College of Law was blessed that at least one Texan could see what it might become.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jack Pope was one of our state’s foremost and longest-serving jurists. In his nearly 104 years of life, he amassed an extraordinary record and legal library. In 2013, shortly before his passing, Pope endowed his collection of over 300 volumes of Texas jurisprudence, including his complete, signed set of Texas case law, to the UNT-Dallas College of Law at a ceremony attended by fellow Chief Justices Nathan Hecht, Wallace Jefferson and Thomas Phillips.

Pope, who liked to call himself a “common-law judge,” set a high standard for downtown Dallas’ nascent institution to rise to the defense of the rule of law and the rights of common Texans.

As the UNT-Dallas College of Law takes flight, the chief justice’s legacy is certainly wind beneath its wings, and in gaining full accreditation, its students and leaders honor his vision.

Dan Branch represented Dallas in the Texas House from 2003 to 2015. He and Sen. Royce West were co-authors of the legislation that established UNT-Dallas College of Law. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.