January 23, 2013 in Idaho

Law school dean: Idahoans pay ‘hidden tax’ on lawyers

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis makes his budget pitch to lawmakers on Wednesday
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – Idahoans pay a “hidden tax” because three-quarters of the new lawyers in the state don’t graduate from the state’s sole public law school at the University of Idaho, the law school’s dean told state lawmakers Wednesday – so they arrive with huge debt loads and charge more for their services.

“Holding down the number of seats in public legal education does not hold down the number of lawyers,” said Donald Burnett, dean of the University of Idaho College of Law.” It only means that they come in with a higher debt … and then they have to charge their clients more, and that’s a hidden tax on Idaho.”

His comments came as U of I President Duane Nellis presented his budget request to the Legislature’s joint budget committee. A key request, to add a second year of law school in Boise, where the UI now offers only third-year classes, wasn’t recommended for funding by Gov. Butch Otter.

Nellis told lawmakers the third-year Boise program has been “highly successful,” and “better prepares students for their professional interests,” linking them to businesses and government agencies in the Treasure Valley.

Eventually, the U of I would like to offer all three years of law school in Boise as well as at its main campus in Moscow, Nellis said.

“There’s a lot of interest here in the Treasure Valley in having a public law school that provides support to businesses here in our state, something that’s financially viable for students who may be place-bound here in the Treasure Valley but also may be attractive to students who would like to live in a metropolitan area like Boise,” he told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

So far, two 30-member classes have completed the third year of law school in Boise. “The focus here has been on business law, corporate law, intellectual property, with links to government law,” Nellis said. “The opportunity for externships, the opportunity for placements has been tremendous.”

He said the $400,000 proposal to add a second-year program in Boise would add 40 second-year students, plus expand the third-year program to 40 students. “We believe there’s capacity now … to house those students,” Nellis said. “There’s demand for those students here in the Treasure Valley.”

Nellis told lawmakers, “We have a shortage – you may not necessarily agree with this – but we actually import lawyers from other states because we don’t have enough, we’re not supplying enough for the state of Idaho. And they contribute tremendously to our business success.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked Burnett about national reports that new lawyers are having trouble finding jobs.

“It’s true that applications to law schools are down this year, they have been the last two years,” Burnett replied. But he said that’s because private law school graduates now average more than $125,000 in debt when they graduate, which on top of their undergrad student loan debt, doesn’t fit well with the pay at entry-level lawyer jobs, particularly in Idaho.

“That’s why public legal education continues to be very important,” he said. “Our students come out with five-figure debts not six-figure debts, and they can manage them and they can stay in Idaho. … They can represent communities, they can be public defenders, they can be prosecutors.”

He also noted that law degrees can lead to successful careers for many outside of practicing law, with examples ranging from top corporate CEO’s to the current investment manager of Idaho’s state pension system.

Idaho ranks 49thin the nation for its number of lawyers per capita, Burnett said.

Otter is recommending a 5 percent increase in state tax funding for colleges and universities next year, but the colleges have requested 17.1 percent. Among the funding requests he rejected were calls to boost faculty pay to keep top professors from leaving for other state universities that pay more.

Idaho lawmakers will begin setting state budgets, including those for colleges and universities, in late February.

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