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A decade of innovation

Since Elon Law opened in 2006, the school has positioned itself as a leader in the national dialogue on what a legal education should be in the 21st century.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor formally dedicated the Elon University School of Law on Sept. 19, 2006. 

By Eric Townsend

When retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visited North Carolina 10 years ago to formally dedicate Elon University School of Law, she noted the “marvelous law school facility” that was “equipped to meet the demands of a contemporary legal education.”

“It’s quite clear,” O’Connor said in her dedication remarks, “that Elon Law is already a force with which to be reckoned.”

Indeed, it still is. In the decade since Elon Law first opened to a charter class of 115 students, the school has graduated hundreds of lawyers whose contributions to society are being felt in North Carolina and beyond. Elon Law also has positioned itself as a leader in the national dialogue about modern legal education. A new curriculum introduced in 2015 places even greater emphasis on experiential education—a hallmark of Elon University—while providing exceptional value to students who now finish the program in 2.5 years. National legal leaders are taking note.

“Coming to Elon, I was so impressed to learn about experiential learning opportunities that students have,” American Bar Association President Linda Klein said in an October 2016 visit to the Greensboro campus. “When I was in law school, unfortunately, I didn’t have those opportunities. With experiential learning, you get to try things. You get to experiment. And when you go on to practice … you have a leg up on those young lawyers who didn’t have experiential learning, because you’ve done this before. I think that’s an incredible benefit.”  

Bringing a law school to Elon

Elon Law traces its origins to the NewCentury@Elon strategic plan, which in 2002 called for the establishment of a law school as part of a broader vision of the university’s future. A committee led by then-Provost Gerald Francis conducted a comprehensive feasibility study that considered market demand, available university resources and even the potential location for a new North Carolina law school. At the time, none of the state’s three largest cities—Charlotte, Raleigh or Greensboro—hosted a law school, and the committee recognized that an opportunity existed for Elon University to make a mark on American legal education.

There was much to be done. New facilities would need to be built. Faculty would need to be recruited by founding Dean Leary Davis. A law library would need to be created. The university recognized the significant investment a law school entailed. What helped the Board of Trustees move forward with a law school was overwhelming support from Greensboro’s legal, civic and business communities, including the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, led by former Greensboro Mayor Jim Melvin, and North Carolina business leader Robert E. Long Jr. 

Melvin knew the law school’s presence in downtown Greensboro would spark a downtown renaissance. In the span of only seven months, he spearheaded the drive to raise $10 million in startup funding and purchase the former Greensboro Central Public Library building to serve as the school’s primary H. Michael Weaver Building. The deed to the building was gifted to Elon after 10 years and Melvin’s vision of economic vitality for the downtown area has become a reality. 

Elon leaders also knew Elon Law would need to differentiate itself among law schools, and they saw how an existing Elon strength, leadership development among students, fills a niche in the market.

“This is a great victory,” Melvin remarked at a 2011 ceremony celebrating Elon Law’s ABA accreditation. “What we have done here is like investing in an annuity. This project, this law school, will pay dividends for our community forever. It will grow, and lots of good things will happen.”

Like the Bryan Foundation, Long is another founding donor whose generosity is reflected in the name of the North Carolina Business Court courtroom that visitors see when entering the building. Long helped build momentum for Elon Law among community leaders, bringing additional support into the program through his advocacy. 

Elon leaders also knew Elon Law would need to differentiate itself among law schools, and they saw how an existing Elon strength, leadership development among students, fills a niche in the market. The university recruited to Elon Law’s advisory board three former chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court, a former president of the American Bar Association, and David Gergen, a former adviser to four American presidents now co-directing the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Gergen served as founding chair of the advisory board and continues to head the group.

“It was one of those things that was natural to build upon if you were going to have a very good and very unique law school,” says Noel Allen, a member of the university’s board of trustees and the Elon Law advisory board. “There probably is now, even more so, a hunger for people to be coming out of law school with a sense of ability and a commitment to leadership, both in their community and in the profession.”

Others agreed. “When I look at the way Elon University educates its students to be leaders in the world, to me, this lined up perfectly,” says Burney Jennings, chief executive officer of the Greensboro-based Biscuitville Fresh Southern restaurant chain and another Elon trustee instrumental to creating the law school. “Learning the law is important. So is learning how to use that knowledge to the benefit of society. We wanted Elon Law to teach both.”

Changing tides in law school admissions

The early years of Elon Law coincided with the peak of a national housing bubble that would crater the American economy. Real estate speculation, coupled with easy credit that led banks to issue millions of risky mortgages, plunged global stock exchanges while devastating local housing markets. At the same time, the legal industry contracted, making it difficult for many graduates to secure the types of legal positions they desired.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of applications to law schools nationally dropped by 50 percent. Enrollment briefly dropped at Elon Law, but the school was in a position to adapt since the university was committed to its success for reasons other than a business model. Some schools downsized and trimmed resources. Elon University did neither, and milestones were reached at Elon as others struggled to adjust to market conditions. In 2011, under the leadership of then-Dean George Johnson, Elon Law achieved full accreditation by the American Bar Association in the shortest amount of time possible for a new law school. Two years later, the ABA recognized Elon Law’s innovative leadership program with the E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award.

From the earliest days of planning a law school, President Leo M. Lambert recognized the contributions Elon University would make to legal education. Faculty and staff recruited because of their pioneering approaches to teaching would further Elon’s national prominence as a leader in higher education. It was clear to him that Elon’s distinctive approach to innovation and strategic planning would soon be realized in preparing lawyer leaders.

The law school feasibility study suggested another benefit to Elon—complementing the robust liberal arts education instilled in undergraduates. “Every time we have a new graduate program on campus, there is a ripple effect in the undergraduate student body,” Lambert says. “Our pre-law program has grown since Elon Law opened. When I talk with undergraduates about their future plans, I’m gratified that a growing number are mentioning law school as a possibility down the road. That’s a harbinger of good things.”

A redesigned approach

The same forces that battered national law school applications presented a unique opportunity for Elon Law to reexamine the foundations of a contemporary legal education. Luke Bierman, who was named dean of the law school in 2014, often tells audiences that his grandfather, who graduated from law school in 1922, would feel at home in many of today’s law schools, and that is a problem. So when Bierman was introduced two years ago as Elon Law’s third dean, he went right to work with faculty in creating a new curriculum to better prepare students. 

Half of the Elon Law alumni body reports working for a law firm, with 20 percent reporting positions in business, according to figures maintained by the law school’s Office of Career and Student Development. Fifteen percent accepted positions in government, including a growing number of judicial clerkships.  

The result is a highly sequenced program that requires more experiential academic credits than any other law school in the nation, anchored by a residency-in-practice required for every student during his or her second year of study. Elon Law also moved to a trimester calendar that graduates students in 2.5 years. Graduates are then able to sit for the February bar exam and begin their careers nearly six months ahead of graduates from other schools who follow a traditional three-year calendar. Tuition growth has been curtailed to the point that the cost of a law degree from Elon is nearly 20 percent below the average for a private law school education in the United States.

“Elon Law is at the frontier of experiential learning in legal education and should serve as a model to other law schools that want to adapt to today’s legal landscape,” Gergen says. “With strong institutional support, strategic planning and faculty vision, Elon Law has taken remarkable strides in just a few short years by focusing on what matters most: its students.”

Professor Catherine Ross Dunham, one of the law school’s founding faculty members, agrees. “Ours is a story of risk taking and pioneering,” she says. “And we are doing it again in this next decade of growth by boldly moving away from 100-year-old models to design something more relevant to the current generation of law students, better suited to the current needs of the bar, and poised to address the growing demand for bright legal minds in our society. Staying relevant is work and law schools have never had to work at staying relevant. 

“Our current culture thrives on innovation and law schools are not excepted from that dynamic,” Dunham says.

In just over a year, the Class of December 2017 will be the first to receive its degrees in Elon Law’s new curriculum. This fall two dozen students were placed into residencies that, once complete, will have given them significant practical experience for academic credit. 

Optimism abounds about the next 10 years of Elon Law. To date, three quarters of Elon Law alumni have established their careers in North Carolina, with 5 percent of graduates headed to Virginia, 3 percent to Washington, D.C., and small numbers to locations elsewhere. Those figures are predicted to change as law admissions officers begin bringing students to North Carolina from points further away. Half of the alumni body reports working for a law firm, with 20 percent reporting positions in business, according to figures maintained by the law school’s Office of Career and Student Development. Fifteen percent accepted positions in government, including a growing number of judicial clerkships. 

Alumni leaders anticipate even greater things ahead for the school and its graduates. “Elon Law assumed a leadership role in being innovative, changing the curriculum, and making a stronger focus on experiential learning. We’ll continue to hear about more law schools doing what we’re doing,” said Jennifer Reutter L’10, president of the Elon Law Alumni Council. “People will look back in another decade and see that we have continued to be innovative and focused on what was important to students, alumni and the legal community throughout the years.”

Alumni voices

“Elon Law taught me that the law consists of so much more than the black letter law that we must all memorize. Once I became an attorney, I truly began to realize and appreciate how the law is everywhere around us and in all things that we do. From the relationships that we establish with our colleagues to the way in which we carry ourselves, we are representatives of the profession.”

—Pedro J. Mantilla L’14, Raleigh, N.C., Associate Attorney, Linnartz Law Office

“During law school I didn’t realize the variety of career opportunities, aside from a traditional legal career, available to someone with a Juris Doctorate. In hindsight, it has become apparent that Elon not only prepared me for a traditional legal career but to truly be successful in any industry. Elon Law instills in its students the ability to leverage your substantive understanding and think creatively to achieve desirable results.”

—Annie Nastasi ’07 L’10, New York City, Director, Global Legal Inventory, CWCRM Program at American Express

“The law is flexible—it is open to interpretation and change—and each judge has a slightly different view on what that interpretation can and should be. At Elon, we were encouraged to think critically and argue both sides of an issue, even in contracts law, and other subjects that you would think are very concrete. This exercise prepared me to be open to varying ideas about laws as written.”

—Katie Lester Perkins L’15, Philadelphia, Law Clerk, the Hon. Norma L. Shapiro, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

“Elon helped me prepare for the fact that the law is ever evolving. When I was a student, I simply did not appreciate how fast and often the law may change, either by legislative action or court decisions. Elon instilled in me the need to always do your research, even if you think you know the law because things may have changed.” 

—Mark K. York L’12, Greensboro, N.C., Attorney, Carruthers & Roth

Keren Rivas,
11/11/2016 9:10 AM