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.

“Neither strategy is sustainable long term,” Abbott said in May 2017. “It has been suggested that relocation of the law school to Sioux Falls may result in an increase in the number of qualified applicants.”

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 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.

“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 University of South Dakota 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.”

Neil 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 2019.

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

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

“We have a lot of our feeder, institutionalized students coming directly from USD. We’ve always been part of this brand, part of this school. I think staying here gives us a nice legacy of USD students being here in Vermillion,” she said.

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.

Monday was also the first-day of a three-day orientation for the new law school students that includes sessions on succeeding in law school, financial planning, wellness and several lectures.

The first session Monday morning was presented by South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson. His topic dealt with professional conduct and the importance of attorneys to follow the rules of the legal profession, be of good moral character and possess strong communication skills.

“When we talk about rules, we’re probably talking about the most important hour you’re going to spend in law school,” he said. “If you cannot understand the concept of rules, I think you’re going to have a lot of problems in the legal profession. Perhaps it’s not for you.”

He told the new students that the USD honor code applies to all of them beginning Monday.

“The South Dakota rules of ethical conduct, which governs the conduct of attorneys – surprise – they also apply to you today, at least the ones that are applicable,” the chief justice said.

Among the rules the students must adhere to, both in their years at the law school and their years in practice, he said, is to complete their assignments and work in a timely fashion.

“It’s important, in your professional career – if you’re not disciplined enough to get your work done on time and accurately, you’re going to be a poor lawyer,” Gilbertson said, “in front of the disciplinary board and probably a defendant in numerous malpractice actions.”

He also urged students to watch their debt load during their three years of law school.

“Have a plan to pay it (school debt) off,” Gilbertson said. “A board of our examiners which certifies people to be admitted to the state bar in South Dakota is denying licenses outright and placing additional admissions – those are admissions with strings attached – to those who have excessive debt and it’s a recipe for disaster.

“Why? We’re not trying to be jerks here. What we’re trying to do is protect the public. A person who has graduated from law school and has $200,000 in debt on him, in debit cards and credit cards and has no plan on how to pay it back, is all too tempted to help himself to clients’ funds because there may no other funds available,” he said. “Have a plan to deal with your debt. Before you get your debt, try to keep it as low as possible.”

Gilbertson said he realizes “not all debt is bad,” and told the story of a farmer’s wife who feared she couldn’t study law because she and her husband’s farm operation, like a good number of farms, had to borrow money for land and crop payments.

“I asked her, ‘are you servicing your debt?’ and she said, ‘of course.’ I told her she had no problem,” Gilbertson said. “Debt is not the problem. The problem is the inability to service the debt in time to meet your obligations.”

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