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Budget cuts threaten free-fall
for law school's programs, ranking

By By Brian Wargo / Staff Writer

InBusiness, Las Vegas
August 1, 2008

Expected state budget cuts could put Nevada's only law school into a free-fall, causing the Boyd School of Law to drop out of national rankings, lose vital community legal aid programs and leave students paying much more for a lot less education.

The Boyd School for the past decade has built a well-respected curriculum amid low tuition and high community support.

It recently announced increases in tuition meant to take Boyd into its second phase of building a great law school.

But state-mandated budget cuts could reverse that progress.

Already this year, higher education and other government-funded programs have been asked to make across-the-board budget cuts of 4.4 percent. The state recently requested they cut another 4 percent.

Boyd Dean John White said that although UNLV has not yet informed the school of exactly how much it will be expected to cut, he is certain it won't be spared or treated with kid gloves.

The law school already has a small faculty and staff compared with similar schools across the nation.

Stephanie Hamrick works in the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic at the Boyd School of Law at UNLV.
STAFF FILE PHOTO

The tuition increase was to help change that.

But the anticipated cuts have forced the school to leave vacancies unfilled for the upcoming academic year. That inevitably means fewer courses being taught, although White did not disclose which courses would be trimmed or eliminated.

"We're just trying to manage it the best way possible," White said. "We're a very small unit and as a consequence, all our cuts have to come out of personnel somewhere."

The Legislature is warning of even more cuts in next year's budget - anywhere from 14 percent to 20 percent on top of cuts already made.

"The difficult thing is that it's one thing to do this once, but it's harder to think about this for the next biennium," White said. "The office of the governor proposed cuts that would be enough to change what we are as a law school. It would put us at a severe disadvantage."

Tuition will increase from $9,800 last academic year, to $20,000 in 2011. Tuition at the law school will increase by $500 this year.

Those increases were proposed to bring the law school's tuition on par with similar law schools across the West. They would enable the school to fund further growth in faculty, staff and other essentials.

The goal was to make the Boyd School one of the best law schools in the country.

But the combination of higher tuition and decreased state funding could turn the now well-regarded Boyd School into a "diploma mill," informed sources said. Diploma mills, which are usually privately owned, accept law school applicants no one else will admit, often charge very high tuition, and have high rates of attrition and low rates of bar passage.

If this were to happen, the community service mission currently at the core of Boyd School's curricula would likely disappear along with a top 100 ranking from U.S. News & World Report.

"That model is inappropriate for Nevada, but it's also the model that these kinds of cuts would point us toward," White said. "We'd do everything we could to avoid it. But the cuts are of such a nature that it would be very hard to maintain the programs we have and the curriculum we have. And that's from a context where we were understaffed to begin with."

A change of this nature would likely lead to fewer Las Vegans going to law school here, said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, executive director of Clark County Legal Services.

It would also have a significant effect on Southern Nevada's poor, who depend on the school's clinics for legal aid and public education and its graduates who perform much of the state's pro bono legal work.

"The community service program and the clinical program of the Boyd School of Law have become an integral part of our public service delivery system in the community," Buckley said. "As the largest nonprofit legal aid provider to the poor in Clark County, we see so many people in need: victims of domestic violence, abused children, people who were scammed in a consumer transaction. And before the Boyd School of Law, we struggled to interview client after client to give them the basic information they needed and then to do the paperwork, to train them, then for our lawyers to represent them or to find a pro bono lawyer to represent them."

"If that went away, I don't know what we'd do," she said. "We'd lose efficiency, we'd lose the ability to help more people and the law students would lose a vital part of their education. It would certainly be a huge blow to us as a community."

The state is at a crossroads, she said.

"I think the community needs to decide whether or not these are important programs and whether education, health care, prisons, these important programs could withstand a 14 to 20 percent cut next year," Buckley said. "If the answer is no, they should let their legislators know so they can come up with other solutions.

"I certainly feel the Boyd School of Law, the entire university system, the K-12 system and the prison system can't withstand a 14 to 20 percent cut, it would mean closing prisons, hindering the university and crippling the law school. That doesn't make much sense to me."

Brian Wargo covers real estate and development for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4011 or at wargo@lasvegassun.com.