FEATURED: On Friday, May 6, 2021, at his Capitol office in Austin, Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, points at the slogan on his face covering – “Good Trouble” – made famous by Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020). Lewis said: “Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” In 2019 and 2021, Martínez, supported by the Rio Grande Valley state representative delegation, passed a plan in the House of Representatives to create a public state law school in the Rio Grande Valley. Both times, that plan died in the Texas Senate.
Photography Courtesy REP. ARMANDO “MANDO” MARTÍNEZ FACEBOOK
St. Mary’s University School of Law launches fully online J.D. program accredited by the ABA designed to provide access to Rio Grande Valley residents
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio has become the first law school in the nation to approve offering a fully online J.D. program that is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), according to university leaders.
The new online J.D. aims to support increased access to the profession for those typically underrepresented, especially those in the Rio Grande Valley.
This effort to make a law school degree more accessible and affordable to South Texans came several months after the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 695, by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, to create a public state law school in the Rio Grande Valley. The measure died in the Texas Senate.
House Bill 695 would have allowed any of the public university systems in Texas to create the law school, which – according to an estimate provided by the University of Texas System – would feature a $63.8 million facility, and would have at least 100 students enrolled in the first year.
Plans by St. Mary’s University leaders continue for the innovation program, including recruiting a group of 25 students who will begin their studies online in Fall 2022.
Online classes are typically a mix of video recordings or live lectures supplemented with readings and assessments that students can complete on their own time. But nothing is typical about education in 2022 as the coronavirus forced a sudden migration to online learning with little time to prepare for it.
As the pandemic accelerated, colleges shifted into emergency mode, shutting down campuses in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – and moving academic life online.
“As the only law school serving San Antonio and the southernmost school serving South Texas, St. Mary’s Law has a tradition of excellence in legal education stretching back to its founding in 1927,” said Patricia Roberts, J.D., St. Mary’s Law Dean and Charles E. Cantú Distinguished Professor of Law. “This new fully online J.D. program — the one and only of its kind — exemplifies how St. Mary’s Law continues to lead with tradition and innovation.”
St. Mary’s University School of Law is one of the professionalgraduate schools of St. Mary’s University, a private Catholic university. The School of Law has an enrollment of about 770 students, pursuing Juris Doctor (J.D.),Master of Laws (LL.M.), orMaster of Jurisprudence (M.Jur.) degrees.
The ABA provides resources for legal professionals, accredits law schools, establishes a code of ethics, and publishes both scholarly and professional materials. The ABA also advocates for legislation and policy.
The Office of the Managing Director of Accreditation and Legal Education at the American Bar Association administers the accreditation project. Administrative functions include, but are not limited to, overseeing the training and appointment of law school site evaluation teams, the collection of law school data in accordance with the Standards for Approval of Law Schools, and the dissemination of site team reports and other relevant accreditation materials to the Council. The Managing Director’s Office may also provide guidance on compliance with the Standards, although that guidance is not binding on decisions made by the Council.
Justice Brett Busby, J.D., of the Supreme Court of Texas, says the effort “is leading the way nationally by offering a rigorous online course of legal instruction leading to an accredited J.D. degree.
“Importantly, this part-time program will expand access to a quality legal education for Texans who do not live near a law school and whose work or family circumstances prevent them from relocating,” Busby said last Fall, when St. Mary’s University School of Law first announced the program.
“These students will benefit from knowledge gained during the pandemic about effective virtual learning and from externships across the state where they can gain practical legal experience while helping others. I look forward to welcoming graduates of this program as members of the Texas bar”, added Busby, who is a graduate of Columbia Law School in New York City.
According to The Harris County Robert W. Hainsworth Law Library, which is a public library that serves the legal information needs of self-represented litigants, legal professionals, the judiciary, and county and other governmental officials:
• Texas currently has ten law schools, half of which are public.
• Though Texas has the second largest population of any state, California, New York, and Florida all have more law schools with 20, 15, and 12 respectively.
• The El Paso area and the Rio Grande Valley are both underserved legal markets where aspiring lawyers face geographic barriers to earning a relatively affordable JD.
• The nearest law school to the Rio Grande Valley is St. Mary’s University School of Law, 300 miles away in San Antonio. El Pasoans must travel 350 miles away to Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock. This prevents Texans in those areas from being able to attend law school without moving away from home. To put this in a local context, the overwhelming majority of students at University of Houston Law Center are hometown commuters.
More details about St. Mary’s University School of Law’s fully online J.D. program were published in March 2022, in Gold and Blue, the university’s official magazine.
That article follows:
ST. MARY’S LAW LAUNCHES THE ONE AND ONLY FULLY ONLINE J.D. PROGRAM ACCREDITED BY THE ABA
By FRANK GARZA
When McAllen attorney Shiree Salinas (J.D. ’90) first heard about the St. Mary’s University School of Law’s groundbreaking online J.D. program, she immediately wrote back to the law school sharing her excitement.
In Fall 2021, St. Mary’s Law became the first law school in the nation to have a fully online J.D. program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). University leaders then announced their intention to recruit an initial cohort of 25 students to begin the online program in Fall 2022.
The new program, Salinas wrote to Patricia E. Roberts, St. Mary’s Law Dean and Charles E. Cantú Distinguished Professor of Law, would “open up the doors to people who I believe would be true assets in the practice of law,” so she was glad to hear her alma mater was undertaking the effort to make legal education more readily accessible.
“I know people who can benefit from this right now,” Salinas said.
Shortly before the program’s announcement, Salinas recalled a conversation she had with a young man while renewing the registration on her vehicle. When she mentioned she was an attorney, he became animated, asking her questions about the law and mentioning how he wished he could attend law school.
“Because he was taking care of family members and working in McAllen, attending law school was just sort of a dream that probably would never be realized,” said Salinas of the prospective student.
Online access to legal education
The four-year, part-time, online J.D. program will have the same tuition rate as the current in-person, part-time program and will provide access to the full suite of student services. Students will be required to attend an extracurricular in-person orientation and in-person professional development activities once every other semester.
Since launching the program, part-time applications have increased by 650%.
The Hon. Mario E. Ramírez, Jr. (J.D. ’74), judge of the 332nd District Court in Hidalgo County, said there are many who do well on the LSAT law school aptitude test who cannot commit full time to a three-year law program because of financial or family reasons.
“Hopefully, more people who are worthy of going to law school can get accepted to St. Mary’s through this program,” Ramírez said. “Hopefully, in the long run, we can get some more lawyers down here in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Focus on South Texas
The new online J.D. aims to support increasing access to the profession for those typically underrepresented, especially those from South Texas, Roberts said.
Some parts of the Valley still struggle with a low ratio of attorneys to the general population, according to a 2020-2021 report by the State Bar of Texas.
Starr County has one attorney for every 1,345 residents, while Willacy County has only one attorney for every 2,521 residents.
“The online J.D. program will provide the increased affordability of being able to obtain a legal education without a move to San Antonio,” Roberts said. “While this will never replace our in-person J.D. program, it will expand opportunities for those in South Texas and beyond who need to stay closer to home while pursuing an excellent legal education.”
With an overall enrollment of nearly 740 students, St. Mary’s Law has gained significant expertise in offering fully online legal education since launching an online version of its Master of Jurisprudence (M.Jur.) program five years ago, said Colin Marks, J.D., the law school’s Associate Dean for Strategic Partnerships and Innovation.
In addition to the faculty with experience in virtual teaching in the master’s program, all St. Mary’s Law full-time faculty obtained their online teaching certification following a demanding course in instructional design to prepare for virtual teaching during the pandemic.
Top-notch remote studies
Currently, J.D. students are allowed to take up to 30 credit hours online in a traditional, in-person program format, according to the ABA. That sort of flexibility has allowed second-year J.D. student Barbra Gazo, who is taking fall semester classes remotely in San Antonio, to thrive.
“My personal experience has been particularly charmed,” Gazo said. “For me, the actual learning experience was not only superior online, it was vastly superior.”
In Gazo’s experience, there was dramatically more interaction with the content of each lesson in an online format. Before every class, there was a pre-recorded lecture, a slide presentation and a quiz.
While it was more work, it also led to more meaningful discussions because students understood the content better, she said.
“What I love about this program is that St. Mary’s is not just pigeonholing. The face of the law has changed. The face of society has changed. St. Mary’s is embracing that change,” Gazo said. “They’re not saying everyone has to be an online student. No matter who you are or what you do, you’re going to find your place here.”
Kathryn Cantú, a second-year J.D. student in the traditional J.D. program at St. Mary’s, had a similarly positive online experience. She spent her first year taking courses online because of the coronavirus pandemic and said she learned a new level of discipline and commitment to earning her law degree by studying online.
Through virtual engagement, she was a member of the school’s moot court team, which simulates an appeals court process, and placed first at the Jimi Derrick Moot Court Competition during the 2020-2021 school year.
“I 100% enjoyed my first year, even though I never stepped foot on campus,” saidCantú, who is originally from Edinburg in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. “I also was able to establish really meaningful connections, not only with my classmates through group messages and Zoom calls, but also with my professors and with the administration at the law school.”
A newly blazed trail
Kellye Y. Testy, J.D., president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council, said the online J.D. could be game-changing, as other law schools will follow the path blazed by St. Mary’s.
She said the Council is “thrilled that St. Mary’s University School of Law will further enable access to the profession by those unable to attend a three- or four-year residential J.D. program.”
Justice Brett Busby, J.D., of the Supreme Court of Texas, said, “Texas is proud that St. Mary’s is leading the way nationally by offering a rigorous online course of legal instruction leading to an accredited J.D. degree.”
“Importantly, this part-time program will expand access to a quality legal education for Texans who do not live near a law school and whose work or family circumstances prevent them from relocating,” he added.
Salinas would love to see more lawyers completing their education at St. Mary’s Law.
After the announcement, she planned to pay a visit to the young man she met while renewing her registration.
“I thought that I would drive back over there at some point in time and say, ‘Hey, do you remember me? We had that long chat. And by the way, here’s an opportunity from St. Mary’s,’” Salinas said.
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).