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When Georgia State University first considered creating a law school more than two decades ago, the idea was anything but warmly embraced. “In every quarter … other law schools, the bar, everybody was complaining that we already had too many law schools,” said Ben F. Johnson Jr., 88, the law school’s first dean. “We did get terrific opposition from the University of Georgia. … They felt that the time might come when the university system was splitting money for law schools, and they didn’t want to split. They wanted to be the only accredited [state] law school.” Hurdles didn’t end there. According to GSU’s current dean, Janice C. Griffith, startup money for the law school came not from a special legislative grant, but from funds cadged from other sources at GSU. “Which, of course at the beginning, did not engender great goodwill between the law school and other parts of the university,” she said. But Johnson — who had gone to night school as an undergraduate — was determined to start a law school that offered part-time programs for working students. At that time, the state had three night law schools, but none had accreditation from the American Bar Association. Johnson wanted GSU to have the ABA’s stamp of approval. With that goal, he rounded up support from members of the business and legal communities, including fellow Rotarians, and more or less brushed off the opposition. “Now, that didn’t faze me, because I had been in this business a long time, over 50 years,” he recalled. “And any lawyer complains that there’s too many lawyers. I mean it’s just born in ‘em. So I didn’t pay too much attention to that.” Johnson, who graduated from law school at Emory, spent 12 years as dean of Emory’s law school prior to becoming the founding dean of GSU’s law school. Though he spent most of his career as a law professor and dean, he also served as an assistant state attorney general and represented part of DeKalb County in the Georgia Senate. His son, Ben F. Johnson III, is managing partner of Alston & Bird. 20 YEARS AGO If the elder Johnson, former university president Noah Langdale and others had heeded the naysayers, the Georgia State University College of Law wouldn’t have celebrated its 20th anniversary on Friday. The school opened its doors Sept. 13, 1982, got provisional ABA accreditation in 1983 and full accreditation by 1990. It now has 630 full- and part-time students and about 40 faculty members. U.S. News & World Report ranks it in the second tier of law schools nationwide, where it keeps company with institutions that have had many more years and many more dollars to establish their reputations. It offers a variety of clinical programs, its students have won moot court and mock trial competitions, and it is the only one of the four ABA-accredited law schools in Georgia that offers part-time study. Despite the early opposition to its founding, students wanted what GSU offered: 620 applied for 199 spots in its premiere first-year class 20 years ago. For this school year, 2,900 applied for its first-year class of about 230 — an application pool that’s grown 44 percent since last year. Applicants’ average GPA is 3.20; their LSAT scores rose a point to 156 from 2001 to 2002. In both the first bar exam its students took in 1985, and the most recently graded exam from July 2001, its students’ pass rate was 93 percent. GSU law alumni now get jobs at top firms such as Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, King & Spalding and Alston & Bird, making $100,000 or more as first-year lawyers — that’s almost $2,000 a week. Johnson, who got his first legal job in 1939, recalled starting at $25 a week. The students who made up GSU’s first classes about two decades ago now are well along in their careers, working in private practice or public service. To name a few, there’s Susan H. Colussy, program director of immigration services at Catholic Social Services; Larry M. Dingle, a partner with Wilson Brock & Irby; Arthur A. Gardner, who has his own intellectual property firm, Gardner, Groff & Mehrman; Rebecca A. Keel, deputy district attorney in Fulton County; Shawn E. LaGrua, an assistant district attorney in DeKalb County; and Aimee R. Maxwell, the new executive director for the Georgia Innocence Project. 20 MORE YEARS AND BEYOND Griffith has high hopes — very high hopes — for GSU’s future. “My vision would be that the Georgia State University College of Law become the best public law school in the country, that has a focus on solving problems that affect metropolitan areas, and that we would continue to take advantage of our great strength and asset, which is our location in downtown Atlanta,” she said. But despite the school’s progress in just 20 years, it’s got a long way to go before it becomes the country’s top public law school. It would have to bypass schools such as the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Virginia School of Law, tied for seventh place in the U.S. News rankings. The University of Georgia, which houses the state’s other public law school, had an endowment of $41.6 million at the close of fiscal year 2001, and received about $501,000 in gifts from alumni. UGA’s annual budget is $10.3 million, according to the University System of Georgia, Board of Regents Budget Office. The school was ranked 32nd by U.S. News in the first tier of schools, and its 2002 entering class had a median LSAT of 163 and GPA of 3.6. Griffith said she knows GSU needs millions to reach its goals. “I think we can do it,” she said. “We can do it someday. All we need is the funding.” “We have similar goals,” said John E. Montgomery, the dean of the University of South Carolina School of Law, which U.S. News ranked in the same tier as GSU. “Part of our job is to move marginally in that direction as fast as we can.” But, he added, it’s not easy. The U.S. News rankings focus on a school’s financial resources, Montgomery said, pointing out that top-ranked public law schools often have yearly budgets between $20 million and $30 million, while those at second-tier schools are one-third to one-half that amount, though they have about the same number of students. USC’s law school, for example, has a budget of between $10 million and $12 million, depending on annual legislative funding. According to the Board of Regents budget office, GSU law school’s yearly budget is about $9 million. Griffith said that amount has declined in recent years because of legislative budget cuts. This makes raising private funds crucial, said Griffith. GSU’s law school raised about $458,500 from private donors last year. Alleen D. Deutsch, the school’s development director, said $147,902 came from alumni, 14 percent of whom donated. USC’s law school has raised $1.5 million to $3 million during its current fund-raising campaign. Of course, USC’s law school has been around far longer than GSU’s — it got ABA accreditation in the mid-1920s. Many of GSU law school’s alumni, Montgomery noted, haven’t been out long enough to be in their prime earning and giving years. Thomas C. Galligan Jr. is dean and a professor of law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, another school U.S. News ranks in the same tier as GSU. “The biggest challenges are in part recruiting great students and faculty,” he said. But he acknowledged that it is hard to talk about much that moves schools up in rankings without also talking about money. Schools ranked where GSU wants to be have endowments of $300 million or more, he noted. GSU’s law school, according to Deutsch, has an endowment of $4.3 million. Griffith also wants to preserve and enhance the school’s diversity. Now, 16 percent of GSU’s law students are minorities; 52 percent are women. Last year, GSU admitted 95 black students; just 25 came, she said. Attributing that low acceptance rate to lack of scholarship money, she said the school needs to increase those funds. One of the best ways to get more money is to develop a loyal pool of alumni. Griffith plans to enhance what GSU offers its law students by pursuing more interdisciplinary programs in the areas of urban problem-solving such as city planning and land use, international commerce, and environmental and criminal law. Already, GSU law students have studied ethics with students from Emory’s medical school, and city planning with students from Georgia Tech. Montgomery, USC’s law dean, said he’ll look forward to GSU’s progress. “Georgia State has done a great job over 20 years,” he said. “Ten years ago, we didn’t think that we needed to compete for students with them, and now we do. … Georgia and Emory need to pay close attention to Georgia State, and probably do.”

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