On The Rise

South Dakota Chief Justice David E. Gilbertson addresses first-year students at the University of South Dakota School of Law Monday morning. The new students are attending sessions during a three-day orientation that also includes several lectures hosted by the South Dakota Supreme Court and Unified Judicial System, South Dakota State Bar Association and South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association.

VERMILLION — What a difference two years can make.

In the late summer of 2017, Vermillion citizens feared that idea of moving the law school from the University of South Dakota campus in Vermillion to Sioux Falls might become reality.

This fall, the USD School of Law is welcoming one of the largest incoming classes it’s seen in at least a decade or more.

James Abbott, president of USD in 2017, requested a task force be formed to study the idea of moving the law school.

He cited drops in enrollment at law schools across the nation and at USD as the university tried to seek quality law school applicants over quantity, even if it meant smaller classes and a budget shortfall.

Two years ago, the USD School of Law was projected to lose $600,000 annually due to shrinking class sizes projected to be anywhere from 65 to 50 students. Another worrisome issue at the time: The rate at which USD grads pass the state bar exam – a requirement in order to practice law in South Dakota — had tumbled from more than 90 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2017.

In response, the task force agreed in late summer of 2017 that a "hybrid option" be pursued that would offer a Sioux Falls location where law school classes would be offered. The task force also agreed to go along with a proposal by then-State Rep. Mark Mickelson, chair of the task force, to increase the revenue the law school receives from state and university sources by $600,000 annually, and to pursue options that will allow for more scholarships to be offered as an incentive for more students to attend law school in South Dakota.

That plan and other factors have helped the USD School of Law see a big jump in first-year student numbers this fall.

On Monday, Neil Fulton, the dean of the law school, welcomed 87 students representing 14 states to the law school’s freshman class. It’s one of the largest incoming classes of students at the law school in recent years. South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson was also on hand to greet the new arrivals.

"This will be one of the largest classes, honestly, in the last 20 years," said Liz Taggart, director of law school admissions. "There have probably been three classes, in those last 20 years, of around similar size, but this is going to be one of the biggest."

Last year, the School of Law welcomed 73 first-year students for their first week of orientation classes Aug. 6.

The class size increased in the fall of 2018 by 22 percent from the previous year. The median LSAT score of students also rose 3 points, which is the highest median LSAT since 2010, according to the university’s department of public relations. The diversity of the entering class was up from 3 percent to 14 percent.

Taggart added that the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores of new USD law students have been up over the past three years four points in the median, four points in the 75th percentile and one point over last year.

Taggart credits an increase in scholarships from donors for the growth in incoming-student numbers.

"Scholarships are a key point in the law students’ decision-making process, especially in this day and age," she said. "A lot of our competitor schools are giving a lot more scholarships or have the opportunity to do tuition discounting, whereas USD does not.

"Thanks to the help of our alumni and our donors, we’ve really been able to rake in money that we can use directly on scholarships to help pay for their legal education," Taggart said.

A second, positive factor is the upward momentum currently being experienced by the USD School of Law, she said.

"We had a couple-years’ struggle with some bar passage issues but that’s started to turn around," Taggart said. "We’ve also gotten some positive press and positive buzz going around and that includes having a great staff and faculty and administration and the welcoming of Dean Fulton to our family."

Fulton — a native of Miller and a former federal public defender, South Dakota Bar Examiner and former chief of staff to former Gov. Michael Rounds — was named dean of the law school in March 2018.

The discussion that occurred two years ago that raised the possibility of moving the law school to Sioux Falls has been put to bed, Taggart said.

"I don’t think they’ll revisit that any time in the next decade," she said. "I think it was kind of overwhelming that the decision was to stay and that it was what the people of Vermillion wanted. That also what was most beneficial to our school — to have the joint programs here."

Taggart said there’s been a shift in focus in recruiting students to the USD School of Law to help populate the legal infrastructure of the state.

"We have that duty and obligation and we’ve had a lot of fun meeting students from throughout the state," she said. "I think one of the reasons we’re chosen by non-traditional students and out-of-state students is the value. We’re number two in the nation for lowest indebted students out of college and I think affordability and what you can do with that degree will certainly help law students to make that decision, especially when they’re very fiscally conservative when it comes to what that bottom line is going to look like when they get out of law school."

Taggart said the next generation of students is very concerned about finances when making college decisions.

"To have an affordability price tag to offer students on top of it being a very beneficial education and not something that’s necessarily cheap but absolutely affordable — I think it definitely gives students a way to making their dreams come true in a more affordable way," she said.

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