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The Best In Texas, Bar None

Feb. 28, 2008


By Lane Murphy

It's safe to say getting into Baylor Law School is competitive. Last year, 4,300 prospective students applied, hoping to fill one of 170 available seats, meaning less than 4 percent of last year's applicants are now enrolled. The total enrollment of 400 is intentionally one of the smallest in the nation, enabling each student to receive individual instruction and mentoring that sets the Baylor program apart from other law schools. Due to the surging demand for admission, prospective students have a tough time getting a foot in the door at the beautiful Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center near I-35 on the banks of the Brazos River.

he many reasons students seek entry into Baylor Law include real relationships with world-class teaching faculty and the arguably unmatched educational environment. Of course, the concrete results also merit attention: Baylor graduates are more fully prepared for the Texas Bar exam than alumni of any of the nine other law schools in the state. In July 2007, 97.85 percent of Baylor graduates passed the bar on their first try, the best rate in the state. On the twice-a-year, three-day exam, Baylor students have led the state rankings in each of the last five offerings and nine times since 2002--a record unparalleled over any period of time by any other law school.

Admitted students know that Baylor Law is not for everybody. They will work harder coming to Baylor than they would at other places, says Jim Wren, JD '80, assistant professor and Practice Court I instructor. "Baylor is for people who want to be challenged, and the end product also justifies that. It pays dividends. Because we make no bones about the fact that Baylor Law is a demanding program, our students come in motivated and committed. I love our student body."

"I think the reason I love Baylor so much is because it fit my competitive personality," says Matt Acosta, a San Antonio native who graduated in February. Acosta, a self-professed Austin-lover, spent his undergraduate years at the University of Texas. He was accepted to several law programs, but UT Law was where Acosta wanted to go--until he learned about Baylor's prestigious advocacy program, Practice Court. "That day, I called my girlfriend and said, 'I'm sorry, there's no way I'm going back to Austin.' To tell you the truth, if I had to do it all over again, I would apply to one law school: Baylor Law School."

Baylor Law is not competitive merely for the sake of competition, but to develop highly capable lawyers who can meet people's needs wherever they are, according to Dean Brad Toben, JD '77, the M.C. and Mattie Caston Chair of Law.

"I always tell students at orientation that if they're not here with a heart that is focused upon service, then they don't belong at Baylor Law School, because this is not a profession for the sake of making a good living or going through the motions," Toben says. "It is a profession that, when it reaches its highest and best, places skilled, savvy and committed professionals in the service of people who have fundamental and very important needs."

For Baylor Law students, Toben says the struggle to gain admission is merely the beginning. "The first year is tough. Then we put a high flame under our students during their second year. In the third year, we crank the heat all the way up."

Practice (Court) makes perfect

At Baylor Law, that heat comes in various forms of practice, which together forge Baylor's bright students into capable and confident lawyers who can meet people's needs immediately upon graduation. In Texas and across the nation, Baylor students excel in a range of competitions, including mock trials, moot court competitions, client counseling and ethics forums, that give students the opportunity to apply what they learn. For example, Baylor students have won the American Association for Justice (formerly the American Trial Lawyers Association) national championship twice in the last three years, most recently besting 223 other teams from across the country.

But perhaps the essence of the Baylor Law experience lies in the intensity of the Practice Court program, which Princeton Review calls "arguably the best training ground in the nation for practical lawyering." This is the final setting where students are refined into competent litigators and trial lawyers by a pair of professors one student calls the Law School's "one-two punch": Wren and program director Gerald Powell, BA '74, JD '77, the Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence Law. By design, each and every Baylor student must overcome the grueling Practice Court sessions over two quarters during the third and final year of study, when Wren says many students at other law schools stay busy by taking elective courses and "grooving their golf swings."

Practice Court culminates in "Big Trial," a weeklong program of hotly contested courtroom battles that puts students in front of a judge and a jury, where they are expected to conduct themselves in a full trial process, defending or prosecuting, analyzing, and making convincing speeches to juries. Big Trial cases run the spectrum, from personal injury suits and breach of contract matters, to medical malpractice and toxic waste disputes, to name but a few.

Practice Court I and II can leave students with sleepless nights and bruised egos. Wren, who has been named a Super Lawyer multiple times by Texas Monthly magazine and who leads the first practice court course, sometimes adds hundreds of pages onto the workload of mistake-prone students after a flub. Powell, a Master Teacher who has taught Practice Court since 1986, is known for unforgiving critiques of students in the middle of Practice Court sessions.

"Sometimes you walk out of a room after being reamed by a professor and feel horrible about it. But you'll never make the same mistake again, and all the students watching will never make that mistake," says Acosta.

Powell and Wren, who both went through Practice Court as Baylor Law students, maintain that the time-tested method is crucial to providing students with practical experiences that simulate what can and will happen when students begin practicing law upon graduation. Though mock trials have been practiced at Baylor since before the Civil War, the form and function of the 10-hour course has changed little since its inception in 1922.

"Practice Court is clearly a very intensive experience," says Wren. "Students here are getting an exposure to handling litigation and handling pressure that I don't believe students at any other law school get. That's a huge advantage for our students.

"PC is also one of the key things responsible for the tight Baylor network. Students establish real working relationships in the trenches together, which becomes the basis of the network when you come out of school."

Professor Jeremy Counseller, MBA '00, JD '00, agrees. "PC links all Baylor Lawyers who are or ever were. When I was in PC, I sat where my Practice Court professor sat, where his Practice Court professor sat, where every Baylor lawyer has sat since before the Civil War. PC is cosa nostra--it's our thing."

Practice Court helps give students three important attitudes that good lawyers need whether they ever set foot in the courtroom or not, Wren says. "The attitudes of 'I am competent in my abilities,' 'I am dedicated to take on challenges' and 'the law is not predominately about theory, it's about making a difference for people' are those we want students to take with them. The bottom line is serving people well, and PC is a reflection of those attitudes as a whole."

Although Acosta admits that Practice Court is difficult, he says it will help prepare him to handle future pressure situations more easily. "After Practice Court, you can get up and [represent people]," he explains. "From start to finish, you can find your way through a lawsuit. And from talking with my buddies coming out of other law programs, they wouldn't know what to do in a lot of situations. They would know the law, but they wouldn't know how to put it all together, and that's what Baylor teaches you."

"The proof is in the pudding"

While the students are rewarded for their years of intensive study with superior practical skills and a sense of accomplishment, the faculty is committed to helping the student body succeed. Baylor law professors exhibit plenty of tough love, but in the midst of all the competition, students discover that their professors truly care about them.

"We are justifiably proud of how our students are among the most highly credentialed in the nation, but what most impresses me is that I think we get more than our fair share of outstanding human beings as students," says Counseller. "Our students work harder than any others in the country. Consequently, we tend to attract those students who want a challenge, and the desire to be challenged is a hallmark of good character."

"I guess the old adage is, 'the proof is in the pudding,'" Powell says. "When you look at our graduates and what they accomplish in the world, that's a reflection on our program, and that makes us very proud.

"The students come in very smart, and we take them and turn them into very capable lawyers, so that by the end, they are ready to step into a courtroom and represent a client or take the bench as a judge. It's personally rewarding to see that transformation."

Julie Ross, BA '04, JD '07, says that after enduring a couple of difficult years of study, she realized that the professors really care about their students. Wren encouraged Ross to enter Baylor's week-long Wortham "Top Gun" mini-trial competition, a twice-a-year $5,000 competition funded by the Honorable Robert and Karen Wortham, where Ross took home second place and $1,000. Ross recalls another instance when Professor Mark Osler gave Ross an encouraging word at a Christian Legal Society meeting. "He challenged me that the door was open both ways and that I should seek out professors, who have excellent things to offer. They really care about students not just as lawyers, but as people."

Acosta agrees. "A lot of professors like to pull students into their lives. The opportunities were there; I just had to grab them. The professors helped me find things I am interested in. It's not just usual legal research abstract writing; it's actually meaningful and helps someone, which is important to me."

Like Ross, Acosta is particularly grateful to Osler, who invited Acosta and recent graduate Dustin Benham, JD '06, to help Osler research and write a pivotal court case brief on the disparity of federal sentencing in crack cocaine versus powder cocaine cases. Osler, who has been studying sentencing disparities for years, allowed Acosta to write the beginning section of the brief. The trio traveled to Washington, D.C., to watch as the U.S. vs. Kimbrough case was argued before the Supreme Court in October.

"Professor Osler was just so passionate about the problem. He has spent his whole career trying to change things exactly like that, and his passion was imprinted on me," says Acosta, whose continuing work with Osler on the brief has sparked his curiosity to study other sentencing disparities.

Crossing the bar

When it comes time to sit for the bar, all this experience comes in handy. It's no coincidence that since 2000, Baylor's 94.42 percent pass rate for first-time examinees is nearly 12 percent higher than the state average. Powell and Wren attribute Baylor's incredible success on the bar exam to the students' impressive work ethic and their practical education. "They are accustomed to working long, hard hours to accomplish a goal, and the bar exam requires that. That's not something new to them," says Powell. Wren says the hard work starts in the first quarter on the first day of class. "There aren't any vacations here," he notes.

"Baylor students learn the law in our classes, whereas at many other law schools, they don't really teach them what the law is, but teach them what the law ought to be, or might be, or could be or should be; it's very theoretical. But we teach theory and we have them learn what the law actually is," says Powell.

"There is a real degree to which the practice court program pulls the experience together in the third year," says Wren. "Students must read a huge volume of cases dealing with a variety of topics, but the legal issues in those cases cover the waterfront. They are not being exposed just to oil and gas or international law, not just to contracts, but contracts being litigated. As a result, they are getting a re-exposure to a broad range of topics in their third year. When they get to the bar, it gives them a leg up."

Ross credits her Baylor education for thoroughly equipping her for the bar exam and preparing her for a position as staff attorney at Cordell & Cordell, P.C., in Dallas. "Any law school may give you some initial know-how, but more than preparing me for the bar and for my position, Baylor Law elevated my level of professionalism," says Ross, while noting the camaraderie she finds among Baylor Law graduates. "When other attorneys and judges find out you are a fellow alum, there is already a meaningful bond and instant credibility because each of us knows the other has survived Practice Court."

Meeting challenges

Although law instruction at Baylor has a long and meritorious history, Baylor Law is also facing stiff competition from other law schools across the nation: competition for top students, faculty and resources.

"We are incredibly proud of our law school faculty, students and alumni," says University President John M. Lilley. "Because of its illustrious history of success, we have great confidence in its future. We want to build upon our remarkable strengths as we seek the support that will take Baylor law to the next level of legal education and scholarship in the nation."

Last fall, Toben and his staff compiled a strategic plan for the school's future with three main priorities: adding faculty positions, increasing diversity, and growing the endowment for student scholarship assistance.

The quarter system and the size of Baylor's 24-member faculty result in extremely heavy teaching loads which are rarely seen elsewhere in higher education, Toben says. The teaching loads make it difficult for professors to fully engage in scholarship and still have meaningful time to spend with students outside of class. Toben wants to substantially increase the size of the faculty by 8-10 positions or more in order to reduce the teaching load.

"We have a faculty here that is exceptionally hardworking, and we kind of work them to the nub. We're looking to give our faculty an opportunity to explore scholarship in a larger capacity in the future," Toben says.

Baylor Law also faces the difficult challenge of increasing diversity in its faculty and student body, which Toben wants to reflect the population of Texas in order to best serve the state's citizens. In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Texas had joined Hawaii, New Mexico and California as a majority-minority state.

Even as Baylor has accepted increasing numbers of minorities into the program, actual enrollment of minorities is falling. This year's student body includes just 12 percent minorities--certainly not where the administration would like it to be. Toben does say he is encouraged that the program's faculty is becoming more diverse by way of recent hirings, which should help attract a more diverse student applicant pool.

"One of the points of pride that we have about Baylor Law is that Baylor lawyers have been so high profile in the public sector. But unless we can begin to educate and train some really fine Hispanic and African American Baylor lawyers, we're going to find ourselves an anachronism in terms of the bar, both in the public and private sector," he says.

"How do we attract minority students? Very substantial funding. When folks have many offers to go elsewhere, we have got to be able to compete in terms of the bottom line."

In the "never-ending quest" to increase the endowment for student scholarships, Toben says he is pleased with the substantial progress the Law School has made in lowering the discount rate, which is the average actual tuition cost for students after receiving scholarships. Over the last four to five years, the average Baylor law student has benefited as the discount rate has grown from about 12 percent to more than 30 percent. Nearly all students (96 percent) receive some form of financial aid, and many receive academic-merit scholarships, ranging from one-third to full tuition. However, Toben says there is work still to be done for Baylor to keep attracting as many high-achieving students as possible.

"The program sells itself, but until we get to the point where we can offer each student that we accept a full or very substantial scholarship, we haven't yet arrived. One aspect of having a very highly credentialed applicant pool is that those we accept inevitably have offers elsewhere. And so, our work only begins at the point we accept them, and then we have to get them to come."

As the cost of higher education as a whole continues to rise, professional school students are looking to add as little debt as possible, or reduce it as quickly as they can.

"What we're finding is that looming debt impacts students' career decisions," says Julie Corley, BS '79, director of development at the Law School. "Many of our students desire to serve in small towns, work in public service or in border towns. There's a huge desire to serve people that need it the most, but when debt is so great, students feel bound to take the highest offer solely to reduce debt."

"There are qualified students out there that are dying for the Baylor experience, but they need the financial wherewithal to come here," adds Wren.

Rachel Sonstein, who graduates in August, recently received one of the first Baylor Law School Equal Justice Scholarships, which provides her with full tuition in return for her three-year commitment to practice law with a recognized legal aid organization upon graduation. Thrilled about the scholarship, Sonstein says it is helping her reach her professional goal of being a public servant.

"These days it seems that many people decide to go to law school despite a lack of a calling, and honestly, I considered myself one of those people," she says. "But I knew that I wanted to be a creator of change, someone who serves their community and tries to improve the lives of others. In orientation, just before starting law school, [Associate] Dean Leah Jackson talked to the entering class about how being a lawyer is not about you, it's about providing service to your client, whoever that may be. That struck a chord with me, and I knew that I'd made the right decision to attend law school."

Toben is optimistic Baylor Law will continue to meet the changing needs of law students by keeping all the challenges in context of the school's most critical mission.

"We try to drill into our students that the legal profession, at least being a Baylor lawyer, is a service profession. And you'd better be animated by a strong, faith-born desire to serve other people, to solve human problems, because lawyers are all about encountering people at a point where they have a great need. And they're expecting their lawyer to move them ethically from where they are to where they need to be."

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