The value of a great public law school

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By Gail Agrawal

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These are trying times for the legal profession and for legal education. Nationally, this past year has brought highly publicized challenges to both, as the poor economy has led to layoffs in law firms and created difficulties for recent graduates seeking their first professional jobs.

Our state is fortunate to have a public law school of such quality that our graduates are highly valued by legal employers, and our challenge is to maintain that quality in the face of economic pressure and dwindling state aid. We’ve taken several steps as a result, including expanding our career services office and reducing class size while maintaining our levels of financial aid.

We’ve added opportunities for students to gain practical lawyering experience that better prepare them for the job market. Through an expanded offering of externships, partnerships with government and social service agencies, clinical work and our innovative Citizen Lawyer Program, students can participate in the practice of law while still in law school so they’re prepared to begin practice professionally as soon as they graduate.

As a result, we remain an integral part of Iowa’s educational and economic landscape. Our faculty, students and alumni provide the legal services necessary for economic growth and ensuring Iowans receive equal access to the law.

Our students alone contribute more than

$1.5 million in pro bono legal aid during their three years at the university. That’s about $8,500 per student. Much of their work saves taxpayers money by providing vital legal services at little or no cost to state and local governments.

Iowa law students work as public defenders on misdemeanor cases, providing an important legal service to indigent Iowans and supporting the underfunded State Defender’s system. Students also work as law clerks in the State Defender’s office, and they represent dozens of victims of domestic violence each year.

Many of our law students also help maintain operations of the state’s court system, which is now staffed at the same levels it was in 1987 due to budget cuts. Our students provide legal services as volunteers who were once performed by paid law clerks, earning valuable experience while filling the court’s gaps.

We also help Iowa’s businesses grow and expand their markets, as law students have helped hundreds of businesses over the years bring their stores and offices into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Law faculty and students work with developers and homebuilders so new residential construction is fully accessible to all buyers and renters.

Faculty work with the Iowa Legislature, too, to help them pass better laws. In recent years, the Legislature has drawn on the expertise of our faculty when considering open records and open meeting laws, and updating laws regarding organ donation.

The Larned A. Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center serves as a consulting firm of sorts for thousands of non-profit agencies, providing assistance to a sector that employs 9 percent of the state’s workers. The law school’s Institute for Public Affairs works with local governments across Iowa on such services as goal setting and strategic plan development.

But our most important contribution to keeping the state’s economy growing and vibrant is our 4,000 alumni who practice in all 99 counties and keep the engines of commerce and justice humming. Our alumni help businesses expand, ensure billions of dollars in property changes hands properly every year, and transfer millions of dollars in investment capital to new business start-ups.

Added up, the Iowa Law School’s alumni, students and faculty make Iowa’s communities stronger, more livable places.

Gail Agrawal is dean of the University of Iowa College of Law. Comments: gail-agrawal@uiowa.edu

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