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At UNT Dallas College of Law, Students Get Experience In Underserved Neighborhoods

Stella M. Chávez
Kaylor Aryee, Connie Beckerly and Vanessa Alberts are enrolled in the UNT Dallas College of Law.

Around the country, it’s been challenging for law school graduates to find jobs as lawyers. As a result, law school enrollment has gone down in some places. That’s not deterring one North Texas school. The UNT Dallas College of Law is trying to attract a different type of student.

In South Dallas, law school students sit around a table discussing their strategy for an upcoming presentation. The topic: domestic violence and sexual assault.

Kaylor Aryee wants people to know just how prevalent it is.

“It also crosses boundaries. So it’s Manziel, Ray Rice, making millions of dollars, and then lower economic status, it doesn’t really matter," she said. "Black, white, young, old – it doesn’t discriminate, so it crosses all socio-economic backgrounds."

Aryee and her classmates are enrolled in the UNT Dallas College of Law. They’re off campus at a center near Fair Park that provides legal services to residents. The idea here is that students get hands-on, collaborative experience in largely underserved neighborhoods. UNT Dallas says this community-focused approach makes it different than other law schools.

“We made a couple of very conscious decisions. We learned that for our potential client base, accessibility was critical,” said Cheryl Wattley, professor of law and director of experiential education at the school. “Our clients will not need to take a lot of bus transfers to get downtown, but rather we’re trying to be in their neighborhoods. The other thing is we’ve very deliberately created afternoon hours … our clients shouldn’t have to choose between going to work and getting legal services.”

The UNT Dallas law school is only two years old. It hasn’t been accredited by the American Bar Association, but has applied for accreditation.

UNT Dallas officials say the number of applicants is up: from 618 students in 2014 to more than 700 this year. They say lower tuition at the public school is a factor – full-time in-state students pay about $15,000 a year.

Some of the students are non-traditional – they’re older and have had other jobs. Wattley believes applicants to UNT Dallas want to serve the underserved, such as in neighborhoods where these community lawyer centers are located.

“What we are doing here…is we’re really creating prototypes and we hope to replicate and have multiple locations throughout the North Texas region going even far down to Lancaster and Desoto and Glenn Heights area,” Wattley said. “This a model that we will be expanding and taking to other areas in Dallas.”

While the job market hasn’t been strong for law school graduates in other parts of the country, UNT Dallas officials say the North Texas job market is better.

They also say their students aren’t necessarily looking for the classic high-paying, high-powered gigs. Some of them are interested working for non-profits and in government. People like Connie Beckerley, who’s a social worker.

“Frankly, I didn’t go into law to try to make a lot of money, you know, and nothing wrong with people who do,” Beckerley said. “I get it, the people that want a fulfilling career and that’s great. I want a fulfilling career, a fulfilling career to me isn’t money, it’s helping.

Valerie James is Assistant Dean of Admissions and Scholarships at the UNT law school.

“A lot of students that are here understand …. that there’s still great opportunities for lawyers in other areas to represent the middle class of small businesses that don’t have access to lawyers because of cost concerns,” James said.

Back at the legal clinic in South Dallas, Kaylor Aryee, a former paralegal, talks about why she decided to attend law school.

“I would see attorneys come in and they’re baby attorneys and they have no idea how to practice law and they have the book knowledge,” Aryee said. “They know the law and how to write a motion, however, they have no experience and reference to how to interview someone.”

Aryee said working in this community, she’s getting that real-world experience she’ll need when she launches her career as a lawyer.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.