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Law-school front is quiet for now

That could change.


NANCE: Been there, done that.
  • NANCE: Been there, done that.

If the pessimists are correct, if the demand for lawyers is in long-term decline, Arkansas is apt to see a revival of a dispute believed settled a couple of decades ago.

In the very old days, a new lawyer could get a law license by apprenticing under an established practitioner. The first formal program of legal education in Arkansas began at Little Rock in 1868, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History, and a small, unaccredited, sometime public, sometime private law school operated in Little Rock for many years. Efforts to create a law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville started in 1890, and what might be called the modern era of legal education in Arkansas began with the opening of the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1924.

The Fayetteville institution would have a near-monopoly on legal education in Arkansas for half a century; its more distinguished and demanding professors would become the stuff of legend among Arkansas lawyers.

In 1969, the state legislature authorized the merger of Little Rock University, a private school, into the University of Arkansas system. Pulaski County, then as now, was the most populous area of the state, the governmental and financial center, and home to about half of Arkansas's lawyers. Many of them, along with lay boosters and, perhaps most importantly, influential legislators, thought Central Arkansas should have its own law school, the area being more accessible to most of the state's aspiring lawyers than Northwest Arkansas, and more able to provide employment for law students. Northwest Arkansas interests weren't keen on the idea, but this was before the big boom in that area, and its legislative delegation was comparatively weak. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School was established in 1975.

Fayettevillians weren't the only ones unimpressed with the new arrangement. Conservative types believed that a small, poor state didn't need and couldn't afford two state-supported law schools. If the legislature was determined to have a law school at Little Rock, they said, then the one at Fayetteville should be closed. In some circles, Two Law Schools became a symbol of unnecessary government spending, the way Amtrak became a symbol on the national level.

But the idea of eliminating a law school, with all the ill will that would bring from one part of the state or another, never gained any considerable support among the people who could do something about it — that is, legislators and governors. A committee of the Arkansas Bar Association studied the matter and concluded that whether or not Arkansas needed two law schools, doing away with either would be so divisive that the cost to the state would far exceed any savings. Most of the state came to share that opinion over time, though considerable competitiveness developed between the two schools.

Cynthia Nance, dean of the Fayetteville law school, says that when she first came to the school as a professor in 1994, there was still talk going around that Arkansas should get rid of one of its law schools. She's heard no such talk lately, she said, and is glad of it. "I think Governor Beebe is right," she said. "We've already been there and hashed that out." She also said, "There's a better working relationship between the two schools now."

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