El Paso has a long way to go before it gets a law school, but those pushing for one got further in the Texas Legislature this year than the last try in 2017.
After an April hearing on state Rep. Lina Ortega’s bill to start the process, the House Committee for Higher Education voted 8-0 to recommend passage to the full House.
The bill didn’t make it to the House floor or the state Senate for a vote, but El Paso’s legislative delegation and local supporters see the committee vote as one that could propel a law school in the next session.
El Paso has seen the step-by-step process work with Texas Tech’s establishment of a four-year medical school, nursing school and its fledgling dental school, along with UTEP’s nursing school and pharmacy program.
Addressing the committee, Ortega said El Paso is the sixth largest city in Texas and “suffers from a significant shortage of legal representation,” especially when compared to the five larger cities.
“To put the issue in perspective, in the Austin area, there is one attorney for every 170 people,” Ortega said. “El Paso, on the other hand, has one attorney for every 650 people.”
Establishing a law school in El Paso “would alleviate the lack of legal representation in the western part of the state.”
She sponsored the bill in the House along with El Paso’s other state representatives, and state Sen. Jose Rodriguez sponsored it in the Senate.
El Paso businessman Ray Mancera, chair of the El Paso Law School Initiative, broached the possibility of “a different kind of law school” in El Paso with the committee.
“We’re not asking for a cookie-cutter law school,” Mancera said. “We already have 10 – six public and four private. We would like to request an opportunity to establish the premier international law school.”
Mancera said he’d call it the Law School of the Americas, “where anybody in the United States, if you want to learn about Latin America and international law, that’s the place you would go.”
In her testimony for the bill, Janet Monteros, president-elect of the El Paso Bar Association, noted the great distances between El Paso and other law schools in the state – and from Austin.
“We just drove nine hours to say hello,” she said, drawing laughter from the committee. “What we’re talking about here is access to justice for many of the people in El Paso.”
Businessman Oscar Ramirez provided the mileage to some: 282 miles to the closest law school in Albuquerque, 343 miles to Texas Tech in Lubbock, 576 miles to Austin and 650 to Baylor in Waco.
A fiscal note in the bill, compiled from information from the University of Texas System and Texas A&M, put the state’s two-year cost to establish a law school in El Paso at $11.6 million.
The newest law school in Texas – the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law – opened in 2014. Its founding dean was former El Paso attorney Royal Furgeson, who gave up his lifetime appointment to the federal bench to take the job.
Ferguson stepped down as dean a year ago to start a private practice with his wife, and to continue raising money for the law school. He had some sobering words for the El Paso effort .
“I love El Paso and love the spirit of the El Paso people,” he said.
“But, I did find it’s a pretty heavy lift to start a law school. We were fortunate to be affiliated with University of North Texas. We started with a $5-million start-up appropriation from the Legislature,” Ferguson added.
Then, there’s the grueling process of obtaining the American Bar Association’s accreditation. UNT won provisional accreditation days before the graduation of the first class.
Graduating from a non-accredited makes it hard to find a job, Ferguson said, even if the former student passes the state bar exam. “The process is long and expensive and requires a lot of attention,” he said.
So, what’s next for the El Paso effort?
“Now, our main target will be to reach out and identify the university system that will be interested in undertaking the law school initiative,” Monteros said. “That would be the University of Texas and A&M.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com, call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.