VOL. 125 | NO. 4 | Thursday, January 07, 2010
FOCUS Law & The Courts
Night Law Program Finds Success In Nashville
By Rebekah Hearn
An adult with a family who works full-time may consider attending law school at some point after passing the so-called “typical” college age.
However, law schools are one of the few branches of higher education that typically do not offer night courses. Few law schools offer night law classes in Tennessee and nationwide, leaving many adults trying to decide if they should put their lives on hold to dedicate themselves to a full-time day program.
The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law doesn’t offer a night program, although it did many years ago. In fact, only one law school in the state offers night courses – the Nashville School of Law, where the curriculum is designed solely for law students attending school in the evenings.
Once upon a time
The U of M law school, which was formed in 1962, stopped offering night courses about 20 years ago – long enough that many of the current U of M law faculty members don’t recall when they were offered.
U of M law school Dean Kevin H. Smith said in an e-mail that the school does “have some late afternoon or early evening classes,” although those classes are scheduled that way to accommodate the professor’s own work schedule.
“The law school used to have a night division, but it was abolished in the 1980s, with the last class graduating from the evening program in 1988,” Smith said.
“My understanding is that the program was abolished because the demand was not sufficient to justify the cost of a fully-developed night program, with the required and enrichment courses that needed to be offered.”
He added that the U of M does offer a part-time option, which also is a day program. The U of M’s part-time law program lets students enroll in eight to 11 hours per semester, although they can’t choose the day or time of the classes, which could lead to possible interferences on the job if the student is a working adult.
It typically takes four and a half years for part-time law students to graduate compared to the average three years in which a full-time law student will graduate, according to the U of M’s Web site. Part-time students can’t transfer to the full-time program until they’ve finished their first year.
Quite a difference
Virginia Townzen, associate dean of the Nashville School of Law, said their student base tends to be those who primarily already have been in the work place and either are pursuing more education, or their long-term goal has always been law school.
“We’re not an (American Bar Association) school, and so we have more leeway on our program than ABA schools,” Townzen said by way of explanation. “However, the Tennessee Supreme Court requires, under our rules of existence, that we meet ABA standards, other than full-time faculty.”
And that’s where the difference lies. Townzen said if a law school is paying full-time faculty $150,000 to $250,000 a year, then the school either has a big state presence or is a well-endowed private school such as Vanderbilt University Law School.
“If you’ve got that faculty to pay, if you don’t have the state paying the majority of the students’ tuition, or making their tuition a lot less, then you’ve got to recruit all over the U.S. to find those people who can pay that tuition,” Townzen said.
“What happened at Memphis is pretty much what would happen in reverse to us. In Memphis, when they started off in day classes and went ABA, then the night classes didn’t pay for themselves.”
The students at the nonprofit Nashville School of Law take the same courses and learn the same subjects as every other law student in the state. They are required to do so by the state Supreme Court because every Tennessee law school graduate takes the same bar exam.
Townzen said the Nashville School of Law’s facility and program meet ABA standards, with the only difference being the full-time faculty issue.
“All of our faculty are practicing attorneys and judges, so we don’t pay them much at all; they do it because they love it so much,” she said.
Students reap the benefit of this setup because tuition at the school is about $5,200 a year, and students can pay that off in 10 monthly, interest-free installments.
Basically, night classes stopped being economically sensible at other schools such as the U of M. At the Nashville School of Law, the same would happen if the administration began offering a day program.
“If we went ABA and had day classes, then we’d have to be recruiting across the U.S. … (and) we’d have to have to pay the full-time faculty. Consequently, we’d lose our student base,” Townzen said. “Our night students couldn’t afford that tuition, so we’d lose our working adults.”
Nashville School of Law students tend to rank in about the mid-70th percentile on the bar exam, Townzen said, while students from day programs like the U of M rank higher on the bar, usually in about the 90th percentile.
“They don’t have all the distractions our students have, and they don’t have the families they’re trying to care for and the bills they have to pay,” she said.
Townzen also said that in a four-year program, the students have to dig further in their memories to recall information that appears on the bar.
“We’re very successful at what we do,” she said. “In 2011, we’re celebrating our 100th anniversary.”