By John Browning
In Shakespeare’s play “Henry VI, Part 2,” anarchist and mob leader Dick the Butcher uttered the famous line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” By having such a character speak these words, Shakespeare was actually not sounding off against the legal profession but rather was asserting the importance of the rule of law in maintaining a well-ordered society; get rid of the lawyers, and there would be no obstacle in the anarchists’ way.
Dick the Butcher would have found a kindred spirit in Wisconsin legislator Frank Lasee. The Republican lawmaker says there are too many lawyers in Wisconsin, and he’s come up with a radical plan for thinning this pinstriped herd: eliminate all state funding for the University of Wisconsin Law School, the only public law school in the state.
According to Rep. Lasee, “We don’t need more ambulance chasers. We don’t need frivolous lawsuits. And we don’t need attorneys making people’s lives miserable when they go to family court for divorces. And I think that having too many attorneys leads to all those bad results.” While Lasee’s colleagues in Wisconsin’s state assembly included his plan in their version of the $56 billion state budget that they recently approved by a 51-44 vote, the “let’s get rid of the lawyers” proposal isn’t likely to survive. Wisconsin’s Senate is not inclined to include such a measure in the final budget and even if it did Gov. Jim Doyle would probably veto Lasee’s plan, which he described as “a really bizarre thing that came out of nowhere.” According to University of Wisconsin Law School Dean Kenneth Davis, if the plan became a reality the school would be forced to choose between raising tuition by $5,000 a year or cutting essential programs. According to Dean Davis, the law school only derives about 10 percent of it’s annual budget from state funding, but that support helps keep annual tuition the lowest of any Big 10 Conference school and enables many low-income students to obtain a legal education. Although the state only has one other law school (Marquette, which is private), Rep. Lasee counters “when we have an overabundance of attorneys already, there’s no point in subsidizing the education of more attorneys.”
In looking at the numbers, Rep. Lasee’s proposal won’t lead to fewer lawyers; Wisconsin only graduates a few hundred a year, anyway, a figure more than offset by the attrition of lawyers moving out of state, leaving the profession, or dying. Besides, Wisconsin isn’t exactly overrun with lawyers — its lawyer population of around 14,000 puts it in the middle of the pack nationally. So what’s behind this “modest proposal” from Rep. Lasee, a 45 year-old legislator known more for his anti-tax crusading and advocating of family values? Maybe it’s because lawyers were a real thorn in Lasee’s side during his contentious divorce, which began in 2001 and dragged on to January 2005. Of course, it may also have something to do with the role lawyers played in Lasee being successfully sued for paternity and for child support by the mother of a child he fathered out of wedlock.
Funny, amidst the pious homilies and smiling photos of Lasee with the two children from his marriage on the legislator’s web page, I don’t recall seeing any pictures or mention of “Mr. Family Values” ’ illegitimate kid.
Dick the Butcher and Rep. Frank Lasee, however, weren’t behind the recent failure of efforts to bring a public law school to the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. In the 2007 legislative session, a bill that would have created the University of North Texas Law School in downtown Dallas failed after weeks of political maneuvering. Although the bill passed the Senate easily and was endorsed by a House committee, the measure was tacked onto a divisive piece of eminent domain legislation that was killed on a technicality by Dallas’ own Rep. Yvonne Davis. Davis had concerns not about the law school provision, but about the main focus of the bill: eminent domain.
Was the law school legislation scuttled because of financial concerns? Hardly.
Dallas has offered to donate the land and building (the old Dallas Municipal Building at Main and Harwood streets), along with $16 million of the estimated $46 million in renovation costs. Did it fail for lack of support? According to Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who sponsored the bill, the proposed law school has received “overwhelming support” from the business community and civic leaders.
Was the law school plan doomed because, well, we don’t need another law school?
While the metroplex already has two private law schools — Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth — tuition at these schools is approximately three times as much as that at the public law schools in Texas, none of which are located in north Texas. Dallas/Fort Worth is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a public law school.
But the law school controversy isn’t a matter of simply churning out lawyers — it’s about providing lawyers who reflect the community. Law schools that are only accessible to those who can afford to pay private school tuition (which typically amounts to $30,000 or more annually) cannot possibly hope to reflect the diversity of our society. At a time when much of corporate America is pressuring their law firms on diversity, only about 9 percent of Dallas’ practicing lawyers are nonwhite.
Dallas judge Teresa Guerra Snelson, herself a product of public law school education, (the University of Houston), was among those testifying before the legislature in support of the bill. She points out that for many students from closeknit Hispanic families, venturing far from the family unit for an education simply isn’t an option.
“A public law school in North Texas would provide an affordable educational opportunity that many members of the minority community don’t currently have”, she says.
Neither Dick the Butcher nor Frank Lasee are going to get their way — we’re not going to get rid of the lawyers. But, we can do more to improve the legal profession by ensuring access to quality public law schools. “Justice for all” tends to lose some of its meaning when we don’t have access for all.
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