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Published January 05, 2022
By Chavawn Kelley
Practical thinking landed Emily Sloan at the University of Wyoming College of Law in the fall of 2018. She says the lower tuition and cost of living in Laramie mean she can make her car payment and she and her husband can manage household expenses—including the vet bills that come with having an older dog.
The University of Wyoming was recently recognized by preLaw Magazine with a spot on its 2021 list of Best Value law schools. The magazine characterizes these schools as ones that emphasize “providing a quality education without hammering students financially.”
In PreLaw’s methodology, tuition counts for 25%, while cost of living and average student debt round out the affordability factor. Of the 60 schools on the 2021 Best Value list, only seven had a lower percentage of students who took out loans, and 32 had tuition more than double that of Wyoming.
Klint Alexander, Dean of the UW College of Law, says, “Students with a lower debt load have more professional freedom after graduation. Whether it’s a smaller private practice, public interest law or government or nonprofit work, students don’t have to make a career decision that’s driven by debt.”
Another advantage, he says, is that young professionals gain the financial flexibility to take on a mortgage or start a family earlier than those who graduate with high student loan debt and are forced to put those dreams on hold.
Sloan will be completing her law degree in May. She says, “When I look at the bigger picture, I don’t want to burden myself and my husband.” She’s drawn to family law, labor law and nonprofit or government work. “Less debt will allow me to do the work I want to do.”
Affordability is Only Half the Equation
Dean Alexander stresses the importance of legal clinics, externships, moot court competitions, study abroad opportunities and other extracurricular activities available to UW College of Law students. “These mean a lot in the long run to one’s overall educational experience,” he says.
In her calculus, Sloan says she was won over by affordability and scholarships in combination with UW’s guarantee of a clinic experience. “I’m a hands-on learner,” she says. Sloan started at the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic in the second semester of her second year. Now she serves as the student director.
Since coming to Wyoming, Sloan says she’s also learned the value of smaller class size and access to her professors. “These are practicing attorneys in their own right,” she says. “They’re experts who are writing and publishing, and doing work in the legal field on top of teaching.”
“Small size is the real advantage of the UW College of Law over most other law schools,” says Alexander, “and it is the main quality alumni describe when reflecting on their law school experience.”
The track record of a law school’s graduates makes up 50% of PreLaw’s value ranking. Passing the bar counts for 15% and securing a job is 35%. University of Wyoming graduates earned a 91.4% employment rate and 89.6% ultimate bar passage during the 2017- 2019 period used in the current rankings.
Even with these strong numbers, Alexander points out employment criteria can be misleading. They can discount law schools with a high number of graduates who go on to pursue other academic or professional degrees or non-law-related jobs.
Public Law Schools Make Up the Bulk of the Best Value List
Alexander observes that public law schools, similar to public universities as a whole, depend on state support to carry out the function of educating and training the state’s citizens to be contributing members of their communities economically, politically and culturally.
Not only do cuts in state support have a negative impact on the cost of legal education for students (as tuition must rise to balance out cuts in state funding) he says, they reduce opportunities for many who cannot afford to take on high debt to attend law school.
“Given the rising cost of higher education tuition nationwide, scholarship aid is critical to providing opportunities for many qualified students to attend law school and obtain their professional degrees,” he says. “Without scholarship assistance, many potential future leaders will never be able to take that next step to make professional and personal success possible. They will simply go in a different, and often less impactful, direction.”
Quality Legal Education Contributes to the Greater Good
And what of the innate value of producing quality lawyers? Alexander says, “Good-quality lawyers and judges are critical to the success of democracy and the preservation of the rule of law. Courtrooms exist to replace the battlefield, and well-trained lawyers are necessary to ensure disputes are resolved in this forum peacefully and effectively.”
From her experience, Sloan observes the law field is changing. “So much goes into a legal case that doesn’t seem like legal work. Often, the value of a lawyer is in being a counselor,” she says. “Clients may never have had anyone to advise them. They are afraid and don’t understand the language.” The legal system needs to be more accessible, she adds, and that goes for writing as well. “The orders we write aren’t for us, they are for the clients.”
Through her work in the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic, Sloan is one of 135 law students in eight legal clinics who in 2020 logged 21,800 pro bono service hours on behalf of Wyoming clients. A full-time faculty member directly supervises each clinical program and is professionally responsible for the students in the program. Besides the value of students gaining direct legal experience, the UW clinics contributed more than $3 million in legal services to the state in 2020. Calls from the public to the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic were up approximately 60% last year.
Sloan and Alexander agree there’s more to law school than the rankings. Sloan says overall, she’s been happy with her UW experience. She appreciates the vital role of the university in training lawyers for Wyoming, Colorado and the region.
This article first appeared in Wyoming Lawyer magazine.