On the outside, the Texas A&M School of Law looks the same as it did four years ago, when it was still Texas Wesleyan Law School: a three-story block of faded brown concrete on Commerce Street downtown, across from the Fort Worth Water Gardens.
It sits between a Sheraton hotel and a parking garage, nondescript enough to house an IRS office, which it has in the past.
But inside, the school — acquired by A&M from Texas Wesleyan in 2013 — has gone from unranked to one of the top 100 in the country, hiring more than 25 new professors in the last two years, improving job placement numbers and putting itself on a competitive playing field with well-established law schools in the state, such as SMU, the University of Houston and Baylor.
“Texas A&M is an incredibly ambitious university,” interim Dean Thomas Mitchell told the Star-Telegram in an interview at the school. “So when they acquired a law school that was unranked, that was not the end goal — just to have a law school. It wasn’t just to have a law school that was average. It was to have an outstanding law school.”
Mitchell, who took over as interim dean in July after Andrew Morriss was appointed to a different position in the Texas A&M University System, acknowledged that simply going from Texas Wesleyan to A&M was “huge” in becoming ranked by U.S. News & World Report.
A&M made its debut at No. 112 last year and moved up to No. 92 this year.
The rankings, which are determined in large part by assessments from law school peers, lawyers and judges, “are mostly noise,” said Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor who blogs about law school topics.
But Leiter credited A&M for improving the school beyond its new brand.
In particular, the school has hired 28 new professors in the last two years, increasing the size of the faculty by 30 percent. Many of them came from well-established schools such as the University of Alabama, the University of Illinois and UCLA, each top-50 schools.
Mitchell was hired last year from the University of Wisconsin, another top-50 school.
“While the reputation score went up simply because of the name, I think Morriss did actually improve the academic caliber of the school,” Leiter said. “Lateral hires are certainly the right investment to make over the long haul. They’re already known quantities. People take notice if they see those people going to Texas A&M. They go, ‘Oh, things must be happening there.’ ”
The way Leiter sees it, A&M is already in a position to at least be competitive with SMU in attracting prospective law students to North Texas.
“Texas Wesleyan was near the bottom of the heap,” Leiter said. “By A&M taking it over, they’re going to give SMU a run for their money, though SMU does have a well-established law school base.”
Reasons behind the ranking
To outsiders, including prospective law students, the ranking might be the most obvious indicator of improvement.
“We want to attract top students,” Mitchell said, “the type of students you would have at UT, SMU, Baylor, the University of Houston. And by now being ranked and cracking the top 100, our ability to attract those students has gone up exponentially.”
A&M is still well behind the schools Mitchell mentioned — UT Austin is 14th in the rankings and the closest school to A&M is Houston at 54 — but ahead of Texas Tech, which ranked 118th.
But Mitchell also emphasized the strides the school has taken in attracting students and faculty.
▪ A&M’s median LSAT score has risen to 157, a jump of five points since the school was acquired from Wesleyan, Mitchell said. SMU and Baylor, by comparison, had median LSAT scores this fall of 161 and 160, respectively. UT’s last year was 167. Houston’s has been 159 in recent years, according to its website. Five points “is a significant improvement,” Leiter said. “If you’re at 157, it’s reasonable to think that most of those students have the skills to pass the bar.”
▪ The school’s job placement numbers have improved. For the Class of 2016, 75.6 percent of graduates obtained either jobs requiring the passage of the bar or “J.D.-advantage jobs,” where law degrees are required or preferred, said Arturo Errisuriz, A&M’s assistant dean of career services. For the Wesleyan Class of 2013, the percentage was 60.2.
▪ Mitchell also touted the fact that five students have already secured postgraduate clerkships with judges and about four more students are expected to do the same before the school year is over. “That would represent a many-fold increase for us,” Mitchell said. “Those tend to be game changers for people’s careers.”
A&M’s enrollment has decreased from 774 in 2013, when it acquired the school, to 484 last year, according data from the American Bar Association.
The drop in enrollment is a result of the school becoming more selective, A&M spokeswoman Rebecca Walden said. The school’s acceptance rate has gone from 54 percent in 2013 to 24 percent last year, according to the ABA data.
This year, the school enrolled an entering class of 138 students, Mitchell said. The school plans to increase that count slightly, about 10-15 students in each class, but its growth will be limited.
“Our building is bursting at the seams,” Mitchell said.
The school rents office space in other buildings downtown to host law clinics. In the future, plans for a new building in a downtown area will be likely, Mitchell said.
“We have a small alumni base for fundraising,” Mitchell said. “We’re ambitious and forging ahead, but that is a reality.”
Even so, the overall A&M alumni base should be beneficial, even if the pool of graduates of the law school is still small.
“I used to teach at UT,” Leiter said. “There are Aggies and there are non-Aggies. Becoming part of that family is going to be a huge advantage. There is a lot of loyalty to the institution. Those are the kind of things that are going to help the graduates get jobs.”
As for hiring a new dean, finalists could be named early next year with a selection made around March, said professor Nuno Garoupa, a member of the dean search committee.
“I think we can think of the last three or four years as the startup,” Garoupa said. “Being in the top 100 is not the end game. We want to move forward.”
By the numbers
$33,995 in-state; $50,480 out-of-state
$30,401 in-state; $45,219 out-of-state
$28,000 in-state; $33,668 out-of-state
$23,668 in-state; $35,008 out-of-state
Source: U.S. News & World Report and American Bar Association