Dean Bill Powers of UT Law, Justice Harriet O'Neill of the Texas Supreme Court, Judge William Wayne Justice, '42,
James B. Sales, '60, Chair of the Access to Justice Commission, and Dean Bradley Toben
of Baylor School of Law at a press conference today announcing the Equal Justice Scholarships
at The Supreme Court of Texas. Photo courtesy of the Texas Bar Journal.
AUSTIN, Texas — Just weeks after an historic Supreme Court of Texas hearing on the status of legal services for the poor, two Texas law schools, The University of Texas at Austin and Baylor University School of Law, have agreed to provide scholarships for students who commit to practice law with recognized legal aid organizations.
The William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law at The University of Texas School of Law and Baylor University School of Law have established the Equal Justice Scholarships, which will be awarded to students with strong academic credentials as well as demonstrated commitment to public service. Upon graduation from law school, the scholarship recipients, in accordance with their commitment, will practice law at legal aid organizations for at least three years.
“It is crucial that all law students understand the need to make our legal system available to everyone,” said Bill Powers, dean of The University of Texas School of Law. “These scholarships will underscore that message. They will also give critical support to students who plan careers in public interest law. We are delighted to work with the Access to Justice Commission to help bring this about.”
The Texas Access to Justice Commission, charged with overseeing the legal aid delivery system in Texas, has worked closely with the two law schools to implement the scholarship program. James B. Sales, a 1960 alumnus of UT Law, is chair of the Commission and a partner in the Houston office of Fulbright & Jaworski, hopes that other Texas law schools will be encouraged to create similar scholarships.
“Texas law schools have the unique and professionally important opportunity to instill in their students the importance of affording access to our justice system to all residents of Texas, regardless of their economic status,” Sales said. “Once again, UT and Baylor have assumed a leadership role in the legal profession’s service to the community and have demonstrated their commitment to equal justice under the law. The Commission is endeavoring to work with all Texas law schools to implement some form of scholarship program that will, in the long term, provide more lawyers to serve poor and low-income Texans.”
According to the American Bar Association, law school graduates carry an average of $77,000 in school loan debt. Yet, the average entry-level salary for a legal aid attorney is approximately $36,000 per year. The association recommends several strategies to alleviate the burden, including loan repayment or forgiveness programs and law school scholarships and fellowships for graduates who are willing to practice law with legal aid providers.
“Baylor Law School’s program instills in our students that the law, and their privilege as members of the bar, must be used to serve all the citizens of our state and nation, including most importantly, those who are marginalized,” said Brad Toben, dean of Baylor Law School. “This scholarship program will make it possible for our graduates to serve where they are truly most needed.”
Legal aid currently meets only 25 percent of the legal needs of poor Texans. To address this dilemma, the Texas Access to Justice Commission has undertaken a broad-based approach to increase access to the justice system for the poor. In 2002, the Commission created the Texas Student Loan Repayment Assistance Program to assist legal aid lawyers with law school loan debt. To date, the Commission has provided more than $45,000 to legal aid lawyers in Texas. The State Bar of Texas recently committed an additional $70,000 to the program. Despite these efforts, student loan repayment presents a major obstacle to graduates working for legal aid providers.
The Commission has also launched an ambitious five-year strategic plan, which includes the creation of an endowment fund, increasing corporate support, formulating programs to expand pro bono legal services and engaging law schools in legal aid issues.
The William Wayne Justice Center at U.T. School of Law has committed to fund three scholarships, collectively valued at $135,000. UT will implement one scholarship each year over the next three years. Baylor University School of Law has committed to fund two Equal Justice Scholarships, collectively valued at $143,000. The first scholarship will begin in 2005; the second will begin in 2007. Both law schools will evaluate the possibility of funding additional scholarships in the future.
Equal Justice Scholarships to be Announced: http://www.utexas.edu/law/news/2004/093004_ajscholarships.html
UT Law Establishes William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law: http://www.utexas.edu/law/news/2004/051404_justice.html
Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation: http://www.teajf.org
Texas Access to Justice Commission: http://www.texasatj.org
Free Texas legal information: http://www.TexasLawHelp.org