Law school enrollments are on the decline and job prospects for law graduates have deteriorated, but the idea of launching additional law schools continues to intrigue university administrators and lawyers. 

A small group of judges and prominent attorneys in Peoria, Ill., has quietly been exploring the feasibility of opening a law school at Bradley University—a private school with about 6,000 students. That effort has been underway for the past year, but came to light on October 21 after a columnist for the Peoria Journal Star caught wind.

The Bradley University College of Law is far from a reality, cautioned U.S. District Judge James Shadid of Peoria, who is leading the effort. But an early study has indicted demand for a law school that would largely serve aspiring attorneys who live within about 150 miles of the central Illinois city, he said.

“The more we explored, the more it seemed like it might be possible,” Shadid said. The law school closest to Peoria is the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, close to a two-hour drive away, he said.

The state already has nine law schools, six of which are about 3 1/2 hours away in Chicago. But law students who want to attend a private school in Illinois have no options outside of Chicago, Shadid said, and Peoria is bound to charge lower tuition. “Cost is very important to students today, and I can’t imagine how we couldn’t be less than the Chicago-area schools,” he said.

To succeed, the law school would need to differentiate itself from competitors, possibly through a focus on health law or intellectual property. Those fields would dovetail nicely with Peoria’s location as the home of the University of Illinois College of Medicine and the headquarters of Caterpillar Inc., Shadid said.

The exploratory committee has yet to determine how much tuition would be, or even how much it would actually cost to open a law school. Shadid envisions a total enrollment of about 300 students, but organizers have no timeline. For now, the early results of the feasibility study have been turned over to Bradley University administrators. University President Joanne Glasser has been supportive, Shadid said.

The idea has a redevelopment angle. Supporters hope a law school would spur economic development in Peoria’s downtown, and Mayor Jim Ardis told the Journal Star that he likes the idea.

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Dean Gary Roberts, a Bradley University alumnus and a member of the feasibility committee, said it may seem a strange time to contemplate yet another law school. But the fact that legal education is under significant pressure to change might make this the timing perfect, he said.

“The market is telling us that we need a different model of education,” he said. “Changing an existing law school is like turning the Titanic.”

Although discussions haven’t gone far, Roberts said, a new law school could experiment with a more practice-oriented third year than usual, or emphasize teaching over faculty scholarship.

“If it’s going to be a law school that has innovative ideas and creates a new model, then it might have an advantage and give itself a niche in the marketplace,” he said.

However, finding the financial resources to launch a new law school will present a real challenge, Roberts said.

Three law schools opened around the country this fall, and the Indiana Institute of Technology, a private university in Fort Wayne, Ind., has broken ground on a law school building that is expected to open in fall 2013. Administrators at the University of North Texas are moving forward with plans for their long-stalled law school. Louisiana College’s Judge Paul Pressler School of Law in Shreveport is slated to open next fall, although the recent resignation of the school’s dean could cause a delay.

Shadid has heard the critics, and said that he and his fellow committee members don’t want to pursue a law school that ultimately would not succeed. He remains convinced the idea is worth exploring, however.

“I think a law degree is a fantastic degree, because you don’t necessarily have to practice law. You can go into many different areas,” Shadid said. “In addition, I think there’s always going to be a need for good lawyers.”

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