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Wilmington University aims for ‘unique’ law school

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Phillip Closius will be the founding dean of the Wilmington University School of Law, a program he believes will address many of the challenges in legal education today. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – Wilmington University plans to launch its new School of Law next fall, with a unique and innovative program that addresses many of the challenges in legal education.

The private university based in New Castle quietly announced the school earlier this month but detailed its plans in a press conference Thursday attended by state judges, prosecutors, private attorneys, and educators.

The university will build this new school on the Brandywine Campus to be home to the law school. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMU

The law school will be based at WilmU’s Brandywine Campus off U.S. Route 202 near the Pennsylvania state line, starting initially in the Jack P. Varsalona Hall but later moving to a newly constructed building on the campus upon its opening tentatively in January 2025. It will aim for a student body of about 500, or about 50% smaller than Widener University’s Delaware Law School.

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.

“We have always put students first and fostered an inclusive environment that offers academic excellence, affordability, convenience and flexibility. Our law school will be no different,” said Laverne Harmon, president of WilmU. “We will serve qualified students from all walks of life, professionals transitioning from different careers, and others who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to attend law school.”

WilmU President Laverne Harmon said the new law school would remain committed to the school’s specialty of working adults. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Harmon told Delaware Business Times that the school had been considering the possibility of a law school for nearly her entire six-year tenure, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed discussions. They picked back up more than a year ago when leaders saw an opportunity to serve more students, and the recent state Supreme Court report detailing the challenges of diversifying Delaware’s bar and judicial bench only served to embolden their resolve.

Aiding the decision was the interest of Phillip Closius to serve as the founding dean of the school. Having served as dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law and The University of Toledo College of Law, 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.

Most recently serving in Baltimore, 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 told DBT, saying 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.

Wilmington University will open a School of Law next fall in an ambitious new chapter for the private school. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The school will aim to hire about nine professors for its first year of studies, and it will not limit faculty to graduates of the most prestigious universities, instead putting an emphasis on career achievements and those looking to make an impact on their students, Closius said.

“Somebody has to do something about law school debt,” he said, noting that on average his graduates in Baltimore were left with student debt of $150,000.

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.

“Don’t come because we’re affordable. Come because you agree with our mission. Come because this is what you want to do and because you think we’re the best place to do it. Let the affordability be a benefit,” he said.

All of these programmatic decisions have also been made in mind to help address the diversity, equity and inclusion challenges identified in the state Supreme Court’s steering committee report published earlier this year. Among the challenges noted were the cost of a law degree and expanding access to underrepresented students graduating from community college or bachelor’s degree programs, both of which WilmU could help address.

“We believe a law school is essential for implementing that plan,” Closius said, noting he had met with Supreme Court Chief Justice C.J. Seitz Jr. to discuss it.

WilmU has already received inquiries from a few hundred prospective students around the region after news of the program spread, officials said, but applications were only launched online Thursday.

The WilmU school is not currently accredited by the American Bar Association, a requirement for graduates to be able to take the licensing bar exam in states. Instruction will begin in August 2023 and ABA evaluators will begin reviewing the school’s studies in the fall of 2024, with a ruling on its accreditation coming around March 2025.

Closius is confident the program they’ve devised will fulfill the requirements of the ABA, because WilmU is financially strong and previously reviewed by the ABA for its paralegal program; leadership is familiar with the ABA, and the university is investing in a new facility for the school.

Should the school not be accredited by the ABA in March 2025, Closius explained that the school would receive instructions from the organization about what would need to be approved and it would be re-evaluated in the fall of 2025.

“We’re going to get two bites of the apple before our first class is set to graduate,” he said, noting full-time law degrees are three-year programs while part-time programs are four.

Closius said that the state’s legal community can help WilmU keep more of its grads in state by being involved in their education, including clerkships, internships and mentor programs for first and second-year students.

“We need an integrated bar to help us educate them and to help you get more lawyers in the bar. If they feel like they have a home here, people are going to stay,” he said.

Aiding the development of the WilmU program will be an advisory panel that includes State Superior Court President Judge Jan Jurden; former Vice Chancellor Joseph Slights III; Michael Nestor, a partner at Wilmington firm Young Conaway; and Kelly Farnan and Blake Rohrbacher, directors at Wilmington law firm Richards, Layton & Finger.

Charles Durante, president of the Delaware State Bar Association and a partner at Wilmington law firm Connolly Gallagher, said the need for new lawyers in the state has never been higher.

“Law firms that in the early ‘70s would hire one or two newly admitted lawyers are now trying to fill 12 to 15 offices every year,” he said. “The reputation of the Delaware judiciary at the state and federal level has expanded the number and types of cases that must be resolved in the courts in the state, including corporate law, patent litigation, bankruptcy proceedings, trust controversies, etc. The need for talent is greater than ever.”

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