The country’s newest law school is welcoming its inaugural class of students. Orientation at the Indiana Tech Law School kicks off on Wednesday, when the students will show up at a new $15 million building on the university’s Fort Wayne campus.
Administrators at the private college, with 11 satellite campuses around the state, announced plans to open a new law school in May 2011. The National Law Journal spoke with founding dean Peter Alexander, who previously served as dean of the Southern Illinois University School of Law. His answers have been edited for length.
NLJ: How does it feel to know that your first students will show up tomorrow, after all this planning?
Peter Alexander: It’s surreal—that is that word that has come to mind all day. We’re in a brand new building, which is beautiful. Students are starting to arrive, and it’s hard to imagine that this began as an idea—a document I created. It’s humbling.
NLJ: How many students will arrive for orientation tomorrow?
Alexander: I still don’t know. Thirty-two have paid both the deposits that were required to hold their seats, so we know we have 32. As I walked into my office this afternoon, I received notice from the admissions office that there is another student whose application is complete and who expects to start tomorrow if we admit him today. We’ll take him.
NLJ: Obviously you didn’t hit the initial goal of 100 students.
Alexander: One hundred was our first goal. I think we did not fully appreciate how hard it is to market a school that must open without accreditation. All new law schools open unaccredited, and the ABA doesn’t even come to inspect you until you’ve been open a year. I think we just thought there would be more people willing to take that chance. In this climate, applications are down overall and people are probably not into taking that much of a risk.
NLJ: The founding of the school has garnered a lot of criticism since it was announced back in 2011 from those who say Indiana doesn’t need another law school. I imagine those same critics see your enrollment figure as proof that they were right. What does your enrollment this year mean for the long-term viability of the school?
Alexander: Our goal has shifted through this process to 350 students in five years, and I think the fact that there are 30 or more students willing to take a chance on this type of education even before we are accredited suggests we have a product that has some interest. I really do expect that we will be a competitive law school, in terms of our enrollment, in the next year or two.
NLJ: That timeline seems pretty short given where you’re starting.
Alexander: I served on the admissions committee this year. I heard from and talked to a lot of applicants. The overwhelming comment from people who decided not to accept our offer or from people who decided not to apply to us was that we were not accredited. Very few people—I can probably count them on one hand—said, “I don’t like your program.” In fact, I heard the opposite. “You’re offering exactly what I want. I want a legal education that blends theory and practice.” I think we have the right focus, but I think we need to become an established school and to remove that impediment.
NLJ: What is the profile of your students?
Alexander: I don’t know the demographics per se, but I know the students coming in are older. I know the national average age for law schools is in the mid-20s, and our median age will be 33, which is significantly higher than most law schools. I think we are more from outside of Indiana than inside Indiana, though it is pretty close to 50/50. We have a student from California and one from New York City. We have at least three students from Chicago and one from Ghana, in Africa. We are more male than female, and between 10 and 20 percent of this group are students of color.
NLJ: If your median age is 33, I assume you’re getting quite a few career-changers.
Alexander: Career-changers and people from northeast Indiana or northwest Ohio who always wanted to go to law school but were looking for the right opportunity nearby. We fulfill that niche for them.
NLJ: What are the most important things that need to happen to get the school to where you envision it?
Alexander: The most important thing is accreditation. We have a curriculum and educational program that I think is attractive to students. We have the support of our university and cooperation and true partnerships with the bench and bar here in Fort Wayne. Every one of our students has a judge or lawyer mentor who will be with them all three years. We have 110 externships placement sites already and our students won’t even be eligible to do them until the second year. The one big piece is to get our name out to more people as a place that they should seriously consider as they look at law schools. Accreditation is key to that.
NLJ: How is your curriculum and program different from other law schools’?
Alexander: The short version is that it is a law school that relies on experiential and collaborative learning to prepare students for the realities and practice of law as well as the theory and history of law. In addition, we spend more time on ethics and professionalism training than any other law school in the country.
NLJ: What advice do you have for others in the position of building a law school from the ground up?
Alexander: One of my dear friends is actually doing that—Ellen Pryor is the founding associate dean of the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law, and their school opens next year. I’ve had many conversations with her. They are facing some of the same criticisms and obstacles we faced. I think you need to have a unique approach to legal education, because the last thing we need is one more cookie-cutter law school. You have to have a reason to start a law school: Ours was to change the way we teach law students, and I think North Texas is going to do something similar.
The second thing is you have to have a thick skin. There are people in the blogosphere who are vicious with their comments. It allows them to be anonymous and it shows the darker side of our profession. I use them as Exhibit A for the need for more professionalism and ethics training. There’s no doubt that it’s hurtful to read things that suggest the faculty members are just trying to steal student’s money and that the school has no soul. In one case, we had a blogger who took off after one of our students and commented about the student for making this choice. You just have to have a thick skin because, unfortunately, there are people out there who do not have all the facts and have not done their homework but have very strong opinions.