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October 23, 2014

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From scratch, he built UNLV law school and its reputation

Glancing up from his desk on a beautiful spring morning in 1998, Frank Durand watched the dean of UNLV Boyd School of Law jogging across campus.

Durand, the school's admissions director, assumed the notoriously chipper Richard Morgan had come in early and was now jogging during a break.

In fact, Morgan had jogged to work - from Summerlin, 18 miles away from the central Las Vegas campus.

"That's kind of illustrative of the can-do, take-charge attitude Dean Morgan has," said Durand, still chuckling about the incident nearly 10 years later.

The lore of the law school is that Morgan was the only candidate for the job of founding dean to think it was possible to launch the law school 11 months after taking over a dilapidated elementary school campus.

Morgan pulled it off in the fall of 1998, in part because of his ability to rally the faculty to move furniture as well as develop curriculum. Morgan then proceeded to hit every benchmark he set for the school: provisional American Bar Association accreditation in May 2000, full accreditation by February 2003, acceptance into the prestigious American Association of Law Schools soon after that and then a top-100 U.S. News & World Report ranking in April 2004, the first year the law school could be ranked.

Today, with an enrollment of 471 students, the school is tied for 100th place in the rankings. But its legal writing program is ranked fourth, its dispute resolution program is ranked 12th and its clinical training program is 20th in the country.

The true success of the law school, Morgan says, is not shown in rankings, which he takes "with 1,000 grains of salt," but in what the law school does for the community. Embedded in the curricula is an emphasis on service and professionalism, such as a five-course sequence on the lawyering process, a mandatory community service requirement for students to teach legal seminars and extensive volunteer clinics in child welfare, juvenile justice and immigration. Lawyers, Morgan thinks, bear a responsibility to their communities.

Morgan hopes those values are preserved as he passes the reins to incoming Dean John Valery White. The 62-year-old Morgan is retiring to take on six consulting or board director positions in Southern Nevada.

"He's not the kind of fellow that would be content to live in the legal equivalent of a Trappist order," said former U.S. Sen . Richard Bryan, who has recruited Morgan to work one day a week at his law firm, Lionel Sawyer and Collins. "He has a need and a talent to be out in the community, to be involved in the community and help the community."

Morgan brought a mix of enthusiasm, idealism and pragmatism to the task of building the law school - ingredients that Jim Rogers, Nevada System of Higher Education chancellor and law school booster, thinks are the key to improving UNLV's overall reputation.

When Morgan arrived on campus Labor Day 1997 from Arizona State University, his staff consisted of one person - an executive assistant, Dianne Fouret, then a 15-year veteran of UNLV's administration.

In the following months, colleagues from Arizona joined him, including Associate Dean Christine Smith, law library Director Richard Brown and juvenile justice clinic Director Mary Berkheiser.

Durand was recruited from George Washington University to persuade prospective students to apply to an unopened, unknown, unaccredited law school in Las Vegas. One hundred and forty-two took the leap.

Morgan, meanwhile, focused on recruiting the professors.

The law school appealed to the very people who could make it successful - innovators in legal education, Morgan said. Only two people he approached the first year told him no.

The support of UNLV's administration, the Nevada Legislature and major donors such as gaming executive Bill Boyd and Rogers convinced faculty prospects that the school was worth the gamble.

The faculty lineup, with the likes of renowned professors such as Jay Bybee, now on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Bruce Markell, now a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge for Nevada, in turn influenced students to come.

Morgan targeted legal heavyweights to build his programs. When Michael and Sonja Saltman donated money to start a conflict resolution center at the school, Morgan turned to Jean Sternlight, renowned in the field.

Then there was the matter of creating a law school campus at Paradise Elementary School, a 1950s facility near Tropicana Avenue and Swenson Street. The Clark County School District held classes in the building until June 1998, giving UNLV just two months to turn it into a law school. Maintenance issues alone quadrupled the cost of the renovations - and there still wasn't enough money to upgrade the restrooms , which had fixtures scaled for elementary schoolchildren.

Such quirks gelled the faculty and students of the fledgling law campus. "The air conditioning was so loud we had to decide whether we wanted to hear the teacher or die of the heat," said Paola Armeni, now a criminal defense attorney. "We would turn it off for a little bit and then on again. It was horrible, and at the same time it made the camaraderie great."

The law school moved into newly renovated facilities on the main campus in 2002.

From this came a "fine, fine legal education," said Boyd, who has pledged $30 million to the law school, as has Rogers.

Stat for stat, UNLV students stack up against their counterparts at better-known law schools. Only 16 percent of applicants are accepted each year, and grade-point averages and LSAT scores are inching higher. Bar passage rates were, at one time, the school's Achilles' heel, but 80 percent of the 2006 class passed it the first time.

About 90 percent were employed nine months after graduation, most in Nevada, according to the school.

The law school's relatively low tuition - $10,000 a year for in-state students compared with $35,000-plus at a private school - allows more students to enter government and public-sector jobs because they don't have as much debt. The school also offers a four-year, part-time program to help nontraditional students earn law degrees, meaning graduates have a range of experiences that supplement their education.

"UNLV grads are as good as anybody around the country, and in some ways better," said Franny Forsman, federal public defender for Nevada. "One thing UNLV does well is that it has had very strong diversity in terms of folks of different age, socioeconomic status and experience."

It is the community service aspect of the law school that makes it shine, alumni and community leaders say.

Students have volunteered to give seminars on divorce, custody, guardianship, bankruptcy and small - claims court issues to more than 15,000 people through Clark County legal services, and served more than 600 clients through the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic. Students and faculty have advocated for child welfare and juvenile justice causes.

Professors volunteer with legal services, local and national associations, advising on legislation and on government and community projects.

"We've built so many different collaborations over this decade that now it is hard for me to imagine us without a law school," said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, the executive director of the county legal services.

The key to the school's future success , Morgan and incoming Dean White say, is to simply fine-tune the current course.

Professors have been stretched thin as they pitched in on administrative efforts to launch the school, and the clinics are particularly packed and in need of expanding, faculty say. If the law school is to continue to develop its reputation nationally, professors need to continue their own academic research , said White, a Yale law graduate renowned for his work in civil rights legislation at Louisiana State University.

Eventually, Morgan and White hope the school will expand its offerings in Reno and develop specialty areas in gaming, entertainment and development law to fulfill and serve the needs of the state.

"We don't have the luxury of being an ivory tower," Morgan said.

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