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For sale: Law degree, no ivy

Nashville School of Law students work toward no-frills law degree at night without having to quit their day jobs

Nashville Business Journal - by Jeannie Naujeck Nashville Business Journal

Todd Stringer | Nashville Business Journal
Nashville School of Law students participate in one of the college’s recent moot court sessions.
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A luxury car dealership is located next to the Nashville School of Law in the city’s Berry Hill community.

At the dealership, you can get a base model BMW sedan for $29,200. At the law school, you can get a juris doctor degree for less than $20,000.

The night school might be one of Nashville’s best kept secrets in graduate education.

Its mission is to provide an affordable legal degree to students who can’t attend class during the day. Often, that means working adults who juggle the rigorous study of a law school curriculum with careers and families.

“The great thing is you can still have your career. You don’t have to quit,” says student Andy Maloney, who has maintained his job as president of Nashville Title Co. through three years of school.

More than 3,000 new lawyers have passed through the school since its incorporation in 1927. But its history goes back nearly a century to 1911 when four Vanderbilt University law graduates opened the Nashville YMCA Night Law School.

Nashville School of Law covers the typical law school curriculum — torts, evidence, contracts, constitutional law. But students finish in four years instead of three, attending class two nights per week.

And at $400 per credit hour, current students will pay $19,200 for their law degree — a fraction of what they’d pay at most any other private or public law school.

For the lesser price tag, students don’t get an ivy-covered quad or even a full-time faculty. What they do get is a modern building next to 100 Oaks Mall with a small library, amphitheater-style classrooms and moot court rooms.

Students also get a dedicated faculty drawn from Nashville’s legal community. Faculty members include practicing lawyers and judges from country and federal district courts on up to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The roster includes criminal court judge Steve Dozier, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch and longtime U.S. bankruptcy trustee Henry Hildebrand.

“When you have the probate judge teaching your wills class, Judge Koch teaching constitutional law, Judge Dozier teaching evidence, you’re well prepared,” fourth-year student Elizabeth Hickman says.

School lacks ABA accreditation

Still, the law school’s bare-bones approach means it is not accredited by the American Bar Association.

Dean Joe Loser Jr. says the school has never pursued accreditation because it would mean raising tuition substantially to fulfill the requirements, which would include hiring 25 to 30 full-time faculty members and providing offices and support staff for them, as well as a substantially larger library collection.

Lack of accreditation makes it more difficult to practice law outside of Tennessee — though not impossible.

That doesn’t bother student Tracy Light, vice president of Security Insurance, now Brown & Brown of Tennessee.

“The truth is, my family’s here in Tennessee and I’m not going anywhere. NSL is perfectly suited for what I need,” Light says.

Generally, the law school’s graduates don’t compete for jobs at the city’s top corporate law firms. Most, like Light, use their degrees to enhance their business careers or go into public service.

“A law degree is more valuable in business than an MBA,” says Loser, who spent 20 years as a 3rd Circuit Court judge before becoming dean in 1986. “There’s so much regulation and government control of business, you need the knowledge of a lawyer to be in compliance with the rules and regulations.”

Many of the law school’s alumni have gone on to careers as business owners, such as Thomas Cone, former owner of Cone Cos. fuel and convenience stores, and corporate executives such as Allen Hill, the general counsel of UPS who helped guide the company through its 1999 initial public offering — at the time, Wall Street’s largest.

Other alumni include judges, district attorneys, members of the General Assembly and even a U.S. senator (Albert Gore Sr.) Nashville School of Law fills more judicial seats in the state than any other law school.

Demand growing

In recent years, the law school has become such a popular option that it’s adding a second session beginning in the spring.

Today, 588 students are going through the program, with 155 fourth-year students graduating next spring and 208 new hopefuls admitted this year.

The number of graduates who pass the Tennessee state bar exam might be considered the ultimate reflection of the caliber of education the school offers. From 1996-2006, 90 percent have passed the exam, and 75 percent of this spring’s graduates passed it on first try, according to the registrar’s office.

Considering what most students go through, attending night classes while working full-time jobs, those are respectable numbers, says Loser, who attributes the numbers to “character.”

“They make sacrifices, and they earn everything they get,” he says of his students. “Law school is still considered a luxury, but it’s the best investment they can make, and they know it.”

Stating their cases:

Scott Felsenthal
Occupation: Law clerk, Law Office of Donald I.N. McKenzie
“I plan to become a business attorney, advising businesses and corporations on various business-related legal matters. Futhermore, I want to do what I can to give back to the community, whether by doing pro bono legal work and by being involved with various organizations in the community.” 

Elizabeth Betts Hickman
Occupation: Trust officer, Cumberland Trust & Investment Co. 
“Since I intend to remain in the estate and trust area, I know the law degree will provide me increased credibility and opportunities.”

Jim Judkins
Occupation: Student
“I want to be a very good general practitioner who specializes in trial work and serve as an elected official in a judicial position or a federal or state legislative position.”

Heather Thorne
Occupation: Law clerk, Wimberly Lawson Seale Wright & Daves PLLC
“Obtaining my law degree will enable me to practice in the area of labor and employment law defense.”

Michael Poore
Occupation: Director of teacher education/assessment for The University of Tennessee at Martin
”This is my 32nd year in education. I have taught English for the largest part of my career and have worked in public school administration as a K-12 supervisor of instruction.“
“After I graduate from Nashville School of Law and pass the bar, I plan to retire from education and practice law. When I first entered law school and because my first career, I thought I would practice educational law. I soon realized that wasn’t my calling, so to speak.”
“I have leaned toward practicing criminal defense law. This summer I completed an internship with the public defender’s office in the 27th Judicial District. As a result of that experience, I am fairly certain that the majority of what I do after passing the bar exam will be criminal defense law. ”
“Another goal of mine is to one day teach legal writing at NSL.”

Across the board
List of occupations of students entering the
Nashville School of Law in 2008:
Car salesman
Closing agent
Court clerk and court officer
Concrete specialist
Construction worker
Criminal investigator
DUI coordinator
Dump truck operator
Government official
Judicial officer
Law clerk
Legal secretary
Loan officer
Mechanical engineer
Real estate specialist
School principal
School superintendent
Social worker
State trooper
Tennessee Bureau of Investigations agent
Toxicology specialist