UW law school says it meets needs of state, energy industryBy Gregory Nickerson
— September 16, 2014
A recent legislative meeting with the University of Wyoming College of Law signaled an effort to restore confidence after last fall’s highly visible scrap between the former law dean Stephen Easton and former university president Robert Sternberg.
Jacquelyn Bridgeman, interim dean of the University of Wyoming Law School, described a new mood among faculty as she testified before an interim committee of state legislators last week. She painted a picture of a responsive law school with a broad range of robust programs, and an energy law curriculum that rivals peer schools like the University of Oklahoma.
Following the hearing, Rep. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) approached Bridgeman to say, “I do commend your efforts and your focus, and where you are trying to take the college.”
That’s a far cry from the confrontational atmosphere that embroiled the law school and the university less than a year ago. Last November, a public debate between dean Easton and Sternberg served as a prelude to the resignations of both men. Members of the media filmed the event, and it generated many headlines throughout the state.
At the time, Easton was leading the school through a national accreditation process when Sternberg notified him of the creation of a “law school task force” made up of non-university members. As WyoFile reported at the time:
Easton felt the task force compromised the independence of the College of Law, and circumvented existing efforts to seek input from the existing Advisory and Alumni Board, and members of the public, including the general counsel of energy companies.
“Important decisions affecting the College of Law have been made without meaningful consultation with me or others on the faculty. … I cannot continue to serve as your dean while critical decisions are made about the College of Law without the input of the administration and faculty of the College,” Easton wrote in his letter announcing his resignation.
Public records later showed that Sternberg’s action came at the request of university trustee David Palmerlee, an attorney from Buffalo who is now president of the trustees. Easton resigned in protest, leading to a public outcry that was soon followed by the trustees’ loss of confidence in Sternberg, and Sternberg’s sudden resignation.
The contention of those events appear to have either dissipated or possibly still linger but remain tamped down out of fear of retribution. But the tone of the legislative meeting held Thursday, September 11, at the University of Wyoming Union was one of reconciliation. Over the summer, Judiciary Committee chairs Rep. Keith Gingery (R-Jackson) and the late Sen. John Schiffer (R-Kaycee) had met with interim dean Bridgeman. That meeting and other conversations have increased communication between legislators and the law school, helping to dispel lawmakers incorrect views that the school didn’t focus enough on energy law, according to Bridgeman.
Bridgeman said the mood among law faculty is much better today than it was last fall. The law school’s relationship with state lawmakers has also improved. “At base it seems simplistic, but it really was an engagement and communication issue,” she said.
“Because of what happened last fall it forced that engagement and it resolved a lot of the issues,” Bridgeman said. “There were people who thought we had done nothing in natural resources in the last decade, but they hadn’t spoken to anyone in the law school. Now they’ve had those conversations and realized we’ve done a lot. We are meeting the needs of the state and we’ll look to do that. As I’ve learned this year, when you don’t communicate with people they don’t assume the best thing.”
During the legislative meeting, attorney Ryan Lance of the Crowell & Moring law firm presented the results of a survey of state bar association members regarding their views of the law school and its effectiveness.
Lance received nearly 600 survey responses from members of the bar during a four-day period. The members largely agreed that they like to hire law school graduates with broad preparation over those specialize in energy law only. That’s because practice in Wyoming’s small towns often require attorneys to work on a wide range of legal issues, from divorces and DUIs to water law and mineral leases.
“They likened it to the medical care you receive in a small town,” Lance said. “Do you want a bunch of ear nose and throat specialists, or doctors that can provide general care and refer to specialists?”
Overall, Lance said the members of the bar are looking for well-rounded graduates who have significant clinical and trial practice and excellent legal writing skills, along with knowledge of natural resource issues.
Lance addressed what he called the “500-pound gorilla in the room” — the question of what is the law school’s purpose, and whether it is “responsive” to the state’s needs and the energy industry.
In conversations with 70 members of the public, judges, and others, Lance said he encountered a perception that the law school isn’t doing enough with regard to natural resources offerings. “I came to this notion that the university was tone deaf to the idea that’s built Wyoming, that they don’t understand Wyoming,” Lance said. “That proved to not be true.”
As an example, Lance found that UW’s energy courses compare well with its peer institutions. “If you look at curriculum at Oklahoma, and UW’s energy resource courses, we are right on par with them,” he said.
Lance noted that the law faculty recently voted to bring on an attorney in oil and gas who is now reaching out to the industry. The same faculty member is also working to leverage collaborations between the School of Energy resources and the UW College of Business. These types of programs have the potential to integrate more easily with law school than adding six or seven more law classes. Lance said adding new classes would require growing the law school’s class sizes by an additional 50 students.
“There is a willingness on part of the bar, College of Law and the faculty to engage,” Lance said. “Most of the professors are willing to engage. I brought up with the fact that legislators would like to visit with you in the session they want to know how that dialog can be furthered going forward.”
In response to Lance’s comments, Sen. Hicks said he wasn’t convinced that the members of the state bar understand the purpose of the University of Wyoming and it’s land grant mission. That mission derives from the federal Morrill Act of 1862, which includes a requirement to offer courses in agriculture and mechanic arts, and military training.
Specifically, the law commits funds generated under the Morrill Act to:
“maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
Hicks said the legislature’s focus on the university’s land grant mission is not a whim but an effort to comply with the Morrill Act.
Bridgeman explained that the academic plan that the law faculty approved this year sets a goal of making UW’s natural resources law program one of the best in the nation. This includes offering interdisciplinary courses, and setting up a natural resources law clinic where students will have the opportunity to work on cases with real clients.
“It doesn’t mean we will do away with that well-rounded education that is so important around the state,” Bridgeman said. “Our faculty voted for this plan and we are behind this plan, and we are committee to putting forward the resources (needed to achieve it). Our advisory board has also seen this plan and endorsed it, and a lot of them are members of the bar and committed to the school.”
The academic plan also sets goals of improving training in legal writing and strengthening the existing law clinic program. The law school will also work to develop distinction as a national leader in the field of rural law.
Bridgeman said the school needs to update its clinic spaces, which are currently housed in the basement of a building on the south side of Grand Avenue. The space is crowded and creates a poor impression on prospective students, she said.
Rep. Gingery, the Judiciary Committee co-chair, responded that the school should approach the legislature in future sessions with a request for upgrading the clinic space.
“I won’t be here next year, so bug these guys next year about giving you money for a new building at the law school,” Gingery said. “I know they have a lot sitting over in Appropriations.” He also suggested that the Judiciary Committee reach out to law faculty after each legislative session to see if faculty or students have an interest in helping out with interim committee topics.
Rep. Gingery is stepping down after ten years in the legislature. Bridgeman said she has no plans to apply for the position of permanent dean. The university will open the search for a new dean this fall.
University of Wyoming College of Law survey
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY.
If you would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.