Thursday, January 26, 2012

SLU Law’s High-Stakes Gamble

One thing you have to say for St. Louis University president Lawrence Biondi is that he "keeps it interesting."

After spending two decades cleaning up St. Louis University's main campus and adding some light, space and tranquility to the stressed-out urban environment that is midtown, what does he do but move his law school, the crown jewel of most universities, to an even more stressed-out downtown St. Louis, and into one of the ugliest, unretrofitted 1960s office buildings that could be imagined.

At first blush, this is madness. But when one considers that legal education and legal employment is an even more stressed-out commodity than decaying urban areas, the move may just be a stroke of genius.

The present SLU law building and library has been rehabbed and improved right along with the rest of the main campus over the last two decades. It is far from an eyesore now: state-of-the-art courtroom for mock trials, an elegant student commons, and an annex which consists of a beautiful Victorian house appointed with all the usual accoutrements: (fireplaces, hand-carved wood, grand staircase, etc. )  And for a modest sum the Law School could have easily been kept up to date.

In contrast, the Scott building definitely will not show well. It is not going to inspire prospective students or (and especially) their parents. A law student will spend most of his life as a lawyer in an ugly office building. So why start now? When you are inside the building, you will spend half your life on the elevator.

And please let’s not sugarcoat the “nuisance” aspect. You are going to get panhandled. Compared to a suburban college campus, parking is going to be a pain. You might even get your car broken into. In terms of national identity, the building and location of the new SLU Law School could not be more ill-timed, with the recent unfortunate ranking of St. Louis as one of the ten most dangerous cities in the world. “Law school is stressful enough already,“ some will argue.

But, in the midst of the worst legal services market in living memory, what the Scott building does, and does very quickly (within six months it is open for business!), is put the emphasis right where it should be: on no-frills education, practical experience and “jobs jobs jobs”. If moving into an ugly building can hold the line on tuition increases and crushing post-Law school debt, I am all for it. If moving closer to the legal community will give St. Louis University law students the inside track on internships, clerkships and “practicums” (mostly unpaid), and allow them to sit in on more trials, I am for that, too. The move is perhaps Biondi’s eloquent rejoinder to one of the most frequent criticisms of the value of legal education: the failure to prepare students for the real-world practice of law.

So St. Louis University law will stand in stark contrast to its competitor, Washington University school of Law, with its “Hogwarts-influenced” gothic Anheuser-Busch Hall.

And the stereotypes of the two student bodies will start to diverge more and more.

The Washington U student will be the conventional car-driving, keg-party hopping, graduate student who will probably date an undergrad and live in a tony Clayton or University City four-family flat and after graduation will get a job with a big firm or (if not in the top 10%) be hired through a family connection.

The St. Louis U law student will be a Metrolink riding, loft-dwelling, New Urbanist, careerist, holding down 16-hours per semester plus two part-time jobs but who “plays hard” with MLB, NFL and NHL and Peabody Opera House right out his front door, and one of the best entertainment strips in the Midwest, Washington Avenue, just blocks away. And he won’t even lay eyes on an undergad until commencement ceremonies. After law school, this student is ready to “hit the ground running” and likely joins a small firm or opens up a solo practice based heavily on net referrals.

For many students who have their choice of law schools, the downtown SLU law campus will be a "bridge too far", understandably. These students should not be criticized or, indeed, stereotyped. But I predict that a surprising number of students will bypass the sleepy suburban campus that feels "just like college" and choose the bright lights of Washington Avenue and become part of “Biondi’s bold adventure”.

Emmett McAuliffe is a partner in a Clayton-based law firm and attended none of the schools mentioned in this article.