Though it was a sometimes rocky path to get there, times are bright at the UND School of Law, says Dean Michael McGinniss.
McGinnis is finishing his first full semester leading the law school. In February, the longtime faculty member was selected as dean following an external search a few weeks prior.
The external search was one of many hurdles the law school has had to overcome in recent years. The school, amid tumultuous funding for higher education in general, has taken a hit in funding over the past two bienniums. The cuts included loss of faculty and the end of UND’s student law clinic.
But recent months have brought better times to North Dakota’s only law school. A change in the school’s higher education funding formula will bring an additional $2.8 million over the next biennium. Also, the North Dakota Legislature created a $250,000 challenge grant for the law school to be applied on a one-to-two basis. The two areas eligible for the state grant are faculty recruitment/retention, and clinical legal education, including indigent legal services.
“The bottom line is things are going really well,” McGinniss said. “We’re really excited about the opportunities that the support from the Legislature has provided to us to be able to do some great things.”
The law school is in the process of hiring new faculty. It also brought back adjunct faculty because of those extra dollars. Curriculum has been added, too.
McGinniss said the law school plans to focus some of those challenge grant dollars on faculty recruitment/retention in the area of energy law, a topic important to the state and country.
“One thing I can say as the new dean is just how rewarding it is to see the enthusiasm that our alums have for the law school,” he said. “Those on the bench and the bar that I’ve met and spoken with are excited about the positive direction that we’re going.”
In August, the law school welcomed its newest class to UND. The class, which grew by 33% compared to last year’s numbers, includes representation from 18 states, multiple Canadian provinces and China.
UND’s bar passage rate also increased this summer. In 2018, the first-time North Dakota bar pass rate was 75%. In July, that percentage rose to 84%. In recent years, the law school has added policies and programs to improve academic success and bar passage, including a second-year intensive legal reading, writing and analysis course. Earlier this year, the school established a relationship with Themis Bar Review, which will provide further resources to help students prepare for the bar.
The clinical education program, which has been on hiatus for the past two years because of budget, could be making its way back in some form, too, McGinniss noted. The school is working to raise funds through the challenge grant to provide endowed support for “robust and sustained” work in that area.
This academic year, the law school will be exploring different models and options for clinical legal education. That could include one of two possibilities.
McGinniss said it could mean re-instituting a traditional in-house clinic on one or more concentrated areas of law. Or it could mean a hybrid clinical model, including innovations like having a full-time faculty member using distance technology to provide support for practicing lawyers and also working with law students who are doing "externships" across North Dakota.
“We want to choose something that's going to be right for the law school but also right for the public service that's involved ...” McGinniss said.
Accreditation is also coming up for the school in 2021 and preparation continues for that visit, Rob Carolin, director of public relations at the law school, said. The ABA does a site visit every seven years.
“We’re happy to be in a strong position to be successful with that,” McGinniss said. “I think the additional support from the Legislature really helps us to put our strong foot forward.”