Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 24, 2017

More bang for the buck at UT Law

Not every law student aspires to be a flamboyant court-room lawyer such as the late Joe Jamail, the notorious firebrand whose well-earned nickname was the “King of Torts.”

And obviously, keeping rdebt to a minimum is a concern for most law school students.

Dean Melanie D. Wilson says the University of Tennessee College of Law pleads its case to prospective students that the school passes the litmus test on both of those counts.

Her message: Come get a quality, well-rounded legal education in Knoxville without the requisite mountain of financial debt that you would accrue at other more high-profile universities.

“You are getting a lot of education for your dollars here,” says Wilson, who began her tenure as dean of UT’s College of Law on July 1, 2015.

“Litigation has been historically thought of as being more competitive. The good thing about law is you don’t have to be competitive to be a lawyer. We have a very robust track for folks that don’t want to litigate.

“There are so many niches that you can go into, and so many things you can do with a law degree that’s, hopefully, appealing to everyone.”

Before embarking on a career in academia, she clerked for a federal district court judge and spent 13 years in sophisticated law practice in both the public and private sectors.

Wilson spent six years as an assistant United States attorney and four years as an assistant attorney general for the state of Georgia.

She previously served as professor of law, associate dean for academic affairs and director of diversity and inclusion at the University of Kansas School of Law.

Wilson earned her JD (magna cum laude and Order of the Coif) from the University of Georgia School of Law, and she holds a bachelor’s in journalism from Georgia.

Wilson says she was led to Tennessee for many reasons.

“There was a personal draw, a draw to the geography of the area and the strengths of our programs, faculty and commitment to teaching.’’

 Rankings & such

Tennessee is ranked No. 65 overall (36th as a public university) in U.S. News & World Report’s latest evaluations of the 196 law schools in the country.

Yale is first, followed by Harvard and Stanford in a tie for second.

Among Southeastern Conference schools, Tennessee is sixth (tied with Missouri) behind No. 16 Vanderbilt, No. 28 Alabama, No. 33 Georgia, No. 48 Florida and No. 60 Kentucky.

Broken down by disciplines, UT is ranked 19th overall (9th public) in legal clinical programs, 23rd (10th public) in legal writing programs and 10th (7th public) for graduating students with the least debt.

“They (the rankings) are perfectly adequate, but we can improve,” Wilson adds. “But, I think we’re better than those rankings suggest.”

Wilson says the relatively inexpensive cost of a law education at UT is a big drawing point to student candidates.

“Tuition for our in-state students is a little less than $20,000 a year, and for out-of-state students it’s about $38,000.

“At a lot of schools, tuition is often in the $50,000 to $60,000 a-year range. Our students leave us with an average of $70,000 to $80,000 in debt.”

Wilson said the escalating cost of a law degree is something very much on the radar of administrators at UT, and across the nation.

“We’ve held tuition steady for the last three years. When our students come here, they leave with much less debt. That’s one of our strengths.”

Columbia tops the list of top 50 schools in terms of tuition with a price tag of $62,700 a year for in-state students.

Apparently, the prohibitive cost of obtaining a degree at traditionally strong law schools is causing students to take a second look at cheaper options.

“From about 2010 until now, the number of (law school) applicants has fallen about 50 percent nationwide,” Wilson explains.

“The private schools have gotten really expensive. Every year, fewer and fewer students apply to law school.”

In its 2016 rankings, The National Jurist ranked UT No. 16 in the country among Best Value law schools.

The National Jurist also gave UT an “A-” grade for having one of the top schools for business and corporate law.

 A diversity of thinking

Chidimma Nwaneri is emblematic of the multi-faceted and ever-changing demographics of UT’s College of Law, which includes 384 students.

Nwaneri, who was born in Nigeria, is a 22-year-old, first-year law school student who holds an undergraduate degree from Tennessee State University in Nashville.

“I applied to a lot of law schools, but I knew I wanted to stay in Tennessee,” Nwaneri says.

“I never visited Knoxville until I came to law school. So far, I really like it. I really want to be a human-rights attorney and help people.”

As is the case nationally, Wilson says the ratio of women to men at the UT College of Law is trending more towards women.

“Our student body is about 45 percent women and 55 percent men,” Wilson notes.

“There are slightly more women than men at law schools across the country. I really don’t know why, but I think more women are going to college than ever before.”

Wilson also says there is a trend towards more out-of-state students at the college.

“It brings a diversity of thinking to our student body,” she adds.

 Staying close to home

UT College of Law grads more often than not find employment in Tennessee after graduation, according to Wilson.

“Eighty percent of our student body stays in Tennessee, with 50 percent staying in the Knoxville area. Over the last 10 years, approximately 87 percent of our grads have jobs,” she says.