Published on May 1st, 2014 | by Patricia Sully


Tacoma needs a law school like I need a hole in the head

Over the past few months, you might have caught a few of the headlines —  Good news! A law school might be coming to Tacoma!

In mid-March, lawmakers approved $400,000 in seed money to bring a law school to University of Washington-Tacoma. Notably, the push is not from the school itself but rather from a bipartisan group of state senators led by Senator Steve O’Ban, a University of Puget Sound law school alum. A steering committee of local citizens and the late Chancellor Debra Friedman proposed a 2015 start and hope to raise $2.25 million over three years to support a fairly modest launch: a night program with thirty students initially, taught by five professors.

The South Sound lost its only law school in 1999 when the University of Puget Sound sold its law school to Seattle University. Now, of the three law school in the state, two are located just miles apart in Seattle, and the other in Spokane.


South Tacoma Way location of the University of Puget Sound School of Law, Tacoma, Washington, 1973. Courtesy of the University of Puget Sound.

It makes sense that Tacoma wants one back.

As a Tacoma resident, I certainly understand that desire. But I’m not sure I believe the rhetoric about why it makes sense.

Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County,has argued that we — the South Sound — are not adequately served by the existing law schools. He went on to say: “A law school at UWT is the most important economic boost to this region in years. It is equal in magnitude for Tacoma to the arrival of State Farm.”  Similarly, Senator O’Ban said restoring a law school could attract high-caliber attorneys to the area. — “You’d hope they come to Tacoma to go to law school and stay there and practice there.” A recent editorial in the Tacoma News Tribune chimed in, stating:

There’s obviously a demand for a South Sound law school. In 1999, the year that Seattle University moved the campus from Tacoma, it had 850 law students. A new UWT program would be a modest reboot that almost certainly would be deluged with applicants.

When aspiring attorneys have to go somewhere else for their degrees, often they don’t come back. That makes it hard for local law firms and prosecutors to recruit, but it also leaves a hole in the community’s social and civic fabric. A UWT law school would help address that gap.

I can’t help but wonder, however, if perhaps a bit of nostalgia and over eagerness is clouding the view. After all, the world looked quite different in 1999. The legal market was different in 1999. And notably, UPS did not simply cease to have a law school in 1999 — it sold its law school to Seattle University. A gap in Tacoma might have been created, but I’m not sure a gap in legal education was. Supporters have stated that a new UW-T law school would be “deluged” with applicants. Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly they would get more than thirty interested individuals. But the real question is not whether people would apply. It is whether there should be a school to admit them.

Hint: I don’t think there should be.

The state of law schools is a bit bleak these days. If you haven’t been keeping tabs, the news is largely not good — there are fewer jobs, fewer applicants, and rising concerns about cost. In response, schools are getting smaller, not bigger. 54% of law school admissions officers report cutting the size of their incoming class in 2013-14, and 25% already intend to do it again for 2014-15.

Legal employment numbers are not quite as dismal as they were immediately after the 2008 crash. They are still pretty darn grim though. Nationally, fewer than half of all 2011 graduates found jobs in private practice; and nine months after graduation and only 57% of 2013 graduates were employed in long term legal jobs at the same mark. On the local level, in 2013, less than 50% of Seattle University School of Law graduates entered full-time, law degree (J.D.) required work. Gonzaga and UW fared slightly better, with full-time J.D. employment rates around 70% each. Those with jobs are getting paid less on average than graduates even just a few years ago, and carrying an increasingly high debt load — the average law student enters the workforce close to $100,000 in the red.

Law Library at the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington, 1998, courtesy of Seattle University School of Law archive photographs (

Of course, numbers do not tell the whole story. Many an article has been written on the veracity of law school reporting, with recent graduates going as far as filing (now dismissed) suits against dozens of schools. But while law schools may (or may not) inflate their numbers, it is also true that that not all graduates want or intend to go into full-time legal work. Some choose to go into fields in which their J.D. is an advantage, but not required. Others may choose a field where a J.D. is simply irrelevant. A few may even choose to simply not work and just take up the law as a very expensive hobby. Hell, we don’t survey law students before they start. Maybe the numbers look the way they do because law schools are just packed with people who do not, in fact, want to practice law!

I kind of doubt it though. I think most people who go to law school probably want to be lawyers. Not all. But most.

While many crow that the retirement of the baby boomers means that soon, jobs will be on the rise, at least one study predicts that through 2015, the number of new attorneys passing the bar will be twice the number of available job openings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects only 19,650 new law jobs (including full-time, part-time, permanent, and temporary) per year between 2012 and 2022.

In 2013, 46,776 people graduated from law school.

Go ahead and do the math. How many baby boomers are there and when exactly do they plan to retire? And are they willing to put something in writing perhaps?

It is worth noting that the legal profession is in an interesting moment, experiencing both a supply and demand problem. The problem is not that we have more lawyers than we have need. The Legal Services Corporation — the nation’s largest non-profit legal aid network — reports that nearly a million poor people who seek help for civil legal problems, such as foreclosures and domestic violence, will be turned away this year because of insufficient resources.

Norton Clapp Law Center, Tacoma, Washington, 1980. Courtesy of the University of Puget Sound

There is no question that people need lawyers. Both nationally and locally, a significant portion of the population cannot afford an attorney. The Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study found that three-quarters of all low-income households experience at least one civil legal problem per year. 85% of those people face the justice system without the assistance of a lawyer.

The South Sound does not need a new law school. The South Sound needs more legal jobs. It needs more funding for civil legal aid. It needs lawyers who will charge less and be accessible to the majority of the citizens of the area. More law school graduates will not address those issues. More unemployed lawyers will not help the problem.

There is ample evidence to suggest that there are more people in Tacoma who need lawyers than can access them. There is no evidence to suggest that there are more legal jobs in Tacoma than lawyers to fill them. A quick glance at Craigslist reveals exactly one job. And even it requires two years of practice experience. In theory, the idea that a law school in Tacoma would help prevent “brain-drain” is true. But to prevent brain-drain, we need jobs for those potentially-drained-brains to go to. And more than that, there must be some reason to believe graduates of UW-Tacoma law graduates, as opposed to graduates of the two law schools located all of forty-five minutes away, would fill them.

If 30 local employers step up to the plate and commit to hire its graduates, or if someone can show that legal employers in Tacoma are struggling to find qualified lawyers, I will happily jump on the UW-Tacoma law school train. Immediately. With enthusiasm. Maybe even banners. But until then, Tacoma does not need a law school. Washington does not need another law school. No one needs another law school. It’s simply irresponsible to start one. But I will tell you what. $2.25 million dollars sure could fund a lot of legal aid lawyers in our county.

Featured image: “The Village Lawyer”, c. 1621, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger


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6 Responses to Tacoma needs a law school like I need a hole in the head

  1. Jean V Dubois says:

    This beating of the drum for the law school is reminiscent of the drum beating for the convention center – that constantly busy downtown business generator!!! The claims made by the proponents are unproven and probably unprovable and the only “for sure” is that if it goes through a lot of money will be spent – none of it belonging to the drum beaters.

    You speak truth Ms. Sully.

  2. Dee says:

    I was part of the SOUL ( save our univ law school) group and when UPS law school up and left in 1995, I recall the City Council did nothing to stop it. UPS even signed a grant stating by receiving city funds it would be a permanent law school in Tacoma. Yet even after getting gov funds they left. No thanks to the same politicians in office today in Tacoma.

  3. Joey says:

    For the amount of money Tacoma neighborhoods have provided to downtown, big development, friends & developers etc the taxpayers have received zero ROI. More and more money is used in one part of town vs neighborhoods. Only recommendation is to secede annex small towns out of Tacoma so neighborhoods can get control, fuscal discipline and better quality of life then giving money to developers who pan handled your tax dollars for years without ROI.

  4. Anon says:

    This push for a branch campus of UW law in downtown Tacoma is lunatic on so many levels it almost defies belief. The legal market has undergone a major structural change and it is not simply in a slump due to the recession. These jobs aren’t coming back. Many of the approx. 40% of law grads who aren’t finding jobs will never find legal jobs. Here’s a good article making some of the same points you made.

    Further, the UW does not want a law school branch campus in Tacoma or anywhere. The entire law school game these days is raising the school’s rankings and thus making it more attractive to potential high achieving students. I’d venture this was a major reason UPS moved north back in ’99. There were more high (or higher) achieving, high LSAT score candidates living in Seattle than in the South End. Further, the kind of young people who can afford a school like Seattle U have shown they prefer living in a hip urban center like Seattle. Tacoma just doesn’t cut it.

    UW law has always had to battle legislators over the perception that it is elitist and thereby putting the interests of the faculty over the interests of the state. As early as the late 80s complaints were legion that not enough UW and WSU grads were gaining admittance to UW Law, that it was too full of out of state students with good LSAT scores. What, pray tell, has occurred in the interim to reduce the pressure to make the priority catering to nationwide high performing candidates? Answer: nothing. I can see the US News and World Reports scorecard keepers reviewing the school’s attractiveness to a high scoring grads having the following exchange: UW Law ‘well, we’ve got a branch campus in Tacoma now.’ USNews: ‘Really? Was that done to attract high caliber students?’ UW: ‘No, the City of Tacoma thought it would add to its prestige.’ USNews: ‘So you’re changing your service delivery model to boost a city’s prestige?’ UWLaw: ‘Right.’ USNews: ‘that would be somewhat akin to Bolt Hall (Berkeley) opening a branch campus in Chico, huh (which they haven’t done)?’ UWLAw: uh . . .’ USNews: ‘Have you ever wondered why prestige schools don’t open branch campuses in downmarket towns?’ UWLaw: ‘uh . . . ‘

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