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Wilmington University School of Law prepares for fall launch

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Wilmington University School of Law faculty

The Wilmington University School of Law has hired an inaugural faculty with extensive trial and litigation experience as well as those who have previously worked in academia, promising a student-focused model for the school. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON UNIVERSITY

WILMINGTON – The start of the fall semester will begin a new chapter in Delaware’s legal community, as Wilmington University launches the first new law school in decades.

The start of the Wilmington University School of Law will challenge the monopoly that the Widener University Delaware Law School has enjoyed for generations, producing dozens of new lawyers every year, many of whom now fill boardrooms in downtown Wilmington.

The move by WilmU is one that others have pondered previously, including a public debate by the University of Delaware in the early 2000s to start a law school. The cost and climb to properly launch a law school has scared those other would-be competitors away though.

As WilmU prepares to accept its first few dozen students at its Brandywine Campus home near the Pennsylvania border off U.S. Route 202 though, it has been working behind the scenes to hire an attention-grabbing inaugural faculty, lay the foundation for a major development of the school’s long-term home and sell the program’s new disruptive twist on a traditional education.

Man for the mission

Part of what sold WilmU President LaVerne Harmon on the transformative project was the interest in it from Phillip Closius, the former dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law and The University of Toledo College of Law.

Wilmington University School of Law faculty Philip Closius

Phillip Closius joins Wilmington University as the inaugural dean of the School of Law having previously led schools in Maryland and Ohio. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON
UNIVERSITY

He increased bar passage rates at both by 30% and job placement rates by 20%, while spearheading the two largest jumps for a law school in the history of the U.S. & World News Report annual rankings. Although he was beloved by faculty and students, he also was forced to resign from both deanships after disagreements with school administrations. At UB, he criticized rising tuition costs on law students that he felt were subsidizing non-law program expenses.

According to some of his former UB faculty colleagues, WilmU scored mightily by convincing Closius to lead the school.

“I think Wilmington is going to be a school to watch and that’s largely because of Phil,” said William Hubbard, director of the Center for the Law of Intellectual Property and Technology at UB who worked under and alongside Closius. “Some deans are more caretakers, and some are more visionaries. Phil is really more of a visionary.”

Garrett Epps, a retired longtime Constitutional law professor at UB who was hired by Closius, agreed, calling Closius a “superb dean” who put the UB law school “on a very strong upward trend that it would not have had otherwise.”

Unlike some other law leaders, Epps said that Closius was singularly focused on supporting the success of students to graduate and find a job.

“Often people who come to deanships come by way of being academics and they tend to see things in terms of the faculty and then everybody else, but that’s a short-sighted approach,” he said. “Phil really changed the dynamic of the place to the benefit of the students. I saw a tremendous increase in student satisfaction over my 12 years at UB.”

One of those students was Michael Hornzell, the incoming assistant professor of property law and legal writing at WilmU who was Closius’ student five years ago at UB.

“Something I immediately admired was his commitment to the students. It was evident then, it’s evident now, that this is about helping the next generation of future lawyers get their start and hit the ground running,” he said during a February event announcing the new faculty.

A disruptive curriculum

Closius said he found a kindred spirit in WilmU’s leadership when approached about the opportunity.

“I didn’t know much about Wilmington University before we started these talks, and I really liked the people. And they’re giving me the opportunity to kind of create the law school that I want,” he said in October, adding it would be the capstone to his career. “I just see opportunity here. I know it’s a small state, but for the things that I want to do, nobody’s doing it.”

Closius was referring to a unique curriculum that will set a required course load for the first two years to establish a solid foundation across several legal subjects for students but opens the third year of studies – often complained about by students as unnecessary – to experiential learning.

“They can take virtually the whole third year as externships or as experiential learning. They can take it all in doctrinal classes or in some specialty that they’re interested in, or they can do some mix of both,” he said.

The WilmU school will also build in Delaware’s five-month clerkship requirement for bar admittance into the third year of studies to ensure that cost doesn’t fall on graduates or small law firms as they start out their careers.

To assist students in passing the Delaware Bar Exam, notoriously one of the most difficult in the country, where only about two-thirds of applicants passed last year, the WilmU school will administer exams in every class in the same proctored style as the bar exam. That will help students adjust to the experience before applying to take the bar exam, Closius said.

“We’re going to do our best to make sure that people understand the opportunities that exist in Delaware and to not shy away from them because they don’t think they can pass this bar,” he added.

Top faculty hires

Aiding WilmU’s law school launch has been the hiring of eight high-profile legal faculty, led by Lawrence Ponoroff, the former dean of the law schools at Michigan State University, University of Arizona and Tulane University.

“I’ve observed a trend … and it’s disturbing. And that trend has been a de-emphasis on the core educational mission of the institution,” he said, noting that scholarship, service obligations and other factors have drawn professors away from the classroom too often. “When I read the mission this new law school, where the focus is entirely on the student experience … That, to me, was extraordinarily refreshing.”

Wilmington University School of Law Nicole Mosee

Nicole Mosee, the deputy attorney general who prosecuted the case against former state auditor Kathy McGuiness last year, is among the inaugural faculty. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON UNIVERSITY

One of the most recognizable faces on the WilmU faculty is Alex Smalls, the former chief judge of the Delaware Court of Common Pleas and the first Black judge to be appointed a chief judge in any of the state’s courts. After a tenure that included introducing innovations like the court’s drug diversion and DUI programs, he retired from the bench in 2021.

Smalls said that in talking with Closius, he was most excited about how WilmU could help further diversify the state’s bar by lowering the cost of a legal education and adequately preparing students to pass the notoriously difficult state bar exam.

“If you become a lawyer, you can help your community. You can move forward with that vision. I think we are embarking on something that’s going to be a turnaround for the bar,” he said.

That goal was also what drew Edson Bostic, a lifetime federal public defender who has tried thousands of cases, to WilmU. He recalled growing up on the Caribbean Island of Barbados and always thinking that his mother’s dream of him going to law school was fanciful.

“We were not wealthy; we didn’t have the means for me to go to law school. And so I always thought it was ironic when my mother would say that to me, but once we came to the United States those opportunities opened up,” he said. “It’s important to me that the concept of the [WilmU] school is to give opportunities to people who would not necessarily be in a law school class and to put them back into the community to try to serve the communities from which they came.”

Also on the faculty is Veronica Finkelstein, who has been named the Rutgers Law School Adjunct Professor of the Year every year from 2007 to the present, and Nicole Mosee, the deputy attorney general for the Delaware Department of Justice Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust who prosecuted the case against former state auditor Kathy McGuiness last year.

Joining the faculty in August 2024 is Alisa Klein, a senior-level career appellate attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice who also clerked for late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The new home

In April, Wilmington University received approval from the state’s economic incentive board, the Council on Development Finance (CDF), to issue $45 million in bonds in a conduit through the state.

Wilmington University School of Law

The future School of Law facility on Wilmington University’s Brandywine Campus is being designed by local architectural firm Bernardon. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMU/BERNARDON

The university held more than $39 million in cash reserves as of June 2022, and its current remaining debt on the construction of the Brandywine Campus totaled $4.7 million, according to its most recent audit report.

The proceeds of that issued debt, to be held by M&T Bank, would fund the construction of a 51,000-square-foot, three-story law school building and a new 84,000-square-foot convocation center, which would also house a multi-use space for expanded criminal justice and esports programs.

Designed by regional architecture firm Bernardon, the new law school’s initial design concept anchors conventional elements, such as faculty offices and classrooms, at each end. Meanwhile, a library, collaboration spaces, virtual meeting rooms, and small huddle spaces will be at the center of the facility.

Construction on the new facilities is expected to begin this summer, with the law school completed in about 18 months, and the convocation center taking about two years, said Lloyd Ricketts, chief financial officer of WilmU at their April 24 CDF hearing.

Once built, it would complete Wilmington University’s original three-phase development plan for its Brandywine Campus, which already features the Jack P. Varsalona Hall.

The law school target

The launch of a law school is a major expansion for WilmU, which has increasingly moved to cater to working adults in recent years, especially through its popular MBA and DBA programs. The average age for its 19,000 in-person and online students is 33 and 90% of them work full-time or part-time, officials said.

Breaking with a trend of rising law school tuition nationwide, WilmU’s full-time students will be charged $24,000 per year and part-time students charged $18,000. Comparatively, Widener’s Delaware Law School’s tuition is about $57,000 annually for full-time students or $43,000 for part-time – or more than double what WilmU is planning.

Officials are targeting about 50 daytime students and 15 nighttime students in the initial cohort, with a goal of one day reaching a student body of about 500 students – about 50% smaller than Widener. The law school had already received a few dozen applications by February, officials said, and thousands more prospective students have expressed an interest. It has reportedly mailed some admittance letters to date, and the deadline to confirm attendance is approaching in early June.

“[These are] people with really interesting backgrounds – doctors, professors, finance, real estate, etc. And we have students admitted all the way from California at this point,” said Jeffrey Zavrotny, associate dean for law admissions. “Hopefully they will become our actual students, but we are seeing a very strong interest.”

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