When Dr. Bob Fisher introduced Belmont’s plan to open a law school in October 2009, many details were still up in the air, including its location and leadership.
Now, a year and a half after Fisher announced the city’s first new law school in more than a century, final preparations are under way for the Belmont College of Law’s inaugural class to arrive in fall 2011.
The application window is open until July. The law school has received 125 commitments from around 400 applicants, said College of Law Dean Jeff Kinsler. Faculty for the first two years of the three-year program is in place.
“From everything that I’ve heard, the admissions process has exceeded expectations, both in the level of interest and the academic quality of applicants,” said Dr. Jason Rogers, vice president of administration and university counsel.
For 2011-12, classes will initially be held at Belmont’s former physical therapy building at 15th and Delmar while construction continues on the Randall and Sadie Baskin Center, which will house the law school, its library and a parking garage. Opening is projected for fall 2012.
Randall Baskin, the founder and former owner of Continental Life Insurance Co., and his wife gave $7 million toward the building’s construction costs.
“Sadie and I take great joy in supporting those efforts,” he said at the groundbreaking in October. “We believe this law school can provide many dedicated students a chance to not only build better lives for themselves, but to also impact their community for years to come.”
The Baskins’ generosity is a significant gift, but the expected cost of the building will be close to $30 million. A fundraising committee is in place; Belmont will use reserve money or loans to cover any remaining costs, Rogers said.
The university is also confident the law school will be financially self-sustainable in three years, Rogers said.
In addition to self-sustainability, the College of Law also has to try to find its niche in Nashville, a market that includes the Vanderbilt School of Law, consistently ranked in the Top 20 nationally, and the Nashville School of Law, established 100 years ago to provide law school classes at night for students unable to attend daytime classes.
Kinsley said Belmont wants to have the strength of both of the city’s current law schools, while also offering concentrations in the law of Nashville-specific areas like entertainment, music business and health care.
“There’s a big gap in the market here; there’s no question,” he said. “We think we can do a little bit of what both do well. … We’re going to try to combine the thinking like a lawyer with acting like a lawyer, and that’s not only in the skills that a lawyer needs but the professionalism that lawyers need.”
According to a recent market study Belmont conducted, Nashville and the state of Tennessee are prime for a new law school and more lawyers.
“It was probably right for a long period of time,” Kinsley said about establishing a law school at Belmont. “It was probably overright by the time we got to it.”
Kinsler said he also believed if Belmont did not open a law school, another Nashville school likely would have announced a law school. Both Kinsler and Rogers said there were rumors of Lipscomb’s potential interest in opening a law school before Belmont’s announcement.
Belmont’s market study also included figures showing where new Tennessee lawyers are coming from. In 2008, more than half of the people who took the bar exam in Tennessee came from out of state, the study showed. Kinsler said he believes Belmont’s law school will change those numbers.
“There will come a point in 30 years where there will be more Belmont lawyers in the Nashville area than any other school because we’ll be putting in more than anybody else,” he said. “We will become Middle Tennessee’s law school.”
The school will also encourage its students to work in rural communities as opposed to urban or suburban areas.
“We’re really trying,” Kinsler said. “Even at the open house we had, I was telling students that if you’re from Cookeville or Columbia or Clarksville, don’t think you have to go to Nashville.”
To accomplish these goals with the national recognition Belmont desires, the school will attempt to gain accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA) This accreditation allows Belmont law graduates to sit for a bar exam in any state. Belmont will be eligible to apply for the first, provisional level of ABA accreditation in fall 2012.
“To get that first level of ABA approval, you have to be in substantial compliance with their rules,” Kinsler said. “Their rules are pretty detailed, more so than you would see with a college accreditor.
“They’ll sit in classes, they’ll talk to everybody, they’ll meet with students, they’ll meet with faculty, they’ll look at exams and syllabi, they’ll look at admission files. The provost at Elon [Kinsler’s former school] said it was like no other accreditation process he had seen.”
At this point, Kinsler is optimistic about the law school’s accreditation chances. When two longtime ABA accreditation officials evaluated the school for Tennessee approval, Kinsler said they had no negative comments.
“Not one. That was the first time I’d ever seen that,” he said.
The law school will try to honor Belmont’s Christian roots while trying to stay away from mixing faith, law and politics.
“Belmont made it clear they did not want that kind of message,” Kinsler said. “They didn’t want religion to turn into politics.”