Push for Rio Grande Valley Law School Continues Amid Lack of Attorneys

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A student walks through St. Mary's University campus.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A student walks across St. Mary's University's campus, the closest law school to Texas' Rio Grande Valley.

Texas has close to 29 million residents, more than 100,000 attorneys, and 10 law schools but no options for formal legal education south of San Antonio, and it shows, some South Texas attorneys have observed.

In some areas of Texas the concentration can be noticeably high. In Austin, there’s one attorney for every 174 people, according to a State Bar of Texas report. But Austin is the center of state government and lawyers are common both inside and outside the statehouse, helping to craft policies.

In the rest of the state, the average ratio of attorneys to population is one for every 315 people. This ratio shrinks significantly when moving farther south toward the Texas-Mexico border. In the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metropolitan area, there’s one attorney for every 800 people.

With fewer lawyers to hire or seek help from, those in need of services may experience longer waits, more expensive services, or longer distances to travel, Rockport attorney and former State Bar Director Steve Fischer said.

“If someone wants to get a divorce or have a custody battle in a small town with only a couple of lawyers, they might have to go to the next town or county,” Fischer said. “If there is a lot of people who can’t afford a lawyer, and there’s only one or two, they may be especially busy and not able to provide cheaper services.”

In recent years, some attorneys and lawmakers have proposed a solution: establishing a new law school in the Rio Grande Valley. Creating a hub for legal education could drum up more interest for the profession, recruit more local candidates, and connect students with nearby work so they stay in the area after graduation.

Since he was elected in the early 2000s, State Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) has been pushing for such a new school. In the most recent legislative session, Martinez’s House Bill 103 to create a law school in the southernmost tip of Texas passed the House, but it failed to make any movement in the Texas Senate.

The last time the Legislature created a new law school was in 2009, when lawmakers paved the way for the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law. It opened in fall 2014 and became the second law school in Dallas area.

State Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco)

“Here in the Valley we’ve always been shortchanged with different types of professions, starting with a law degree, all the way up to a medical school and other types of Ph.D.s,” Martinez said. “Now that we do have a medical school, the closest law school is in San Antonio. It’s a private law school, over 250 miles away. And then there’s the larger metropolitan cities like Houston, Austin, and Dallas. They all have law schools that also provide the opportunity for students to attend night courses.”

St. Mary’s School of Law is San Antonio’s sole law school and the closest opportunity for legal education for students in the Valley. At St. Mary’s, Cameron and Hidalgo counties, where Martinez’s bill is focused, are the second- and third-largest sources of interested law students in South Texas after Bexar County.

Unless far South Texas law students relocate to San Antonio or another major Texas city, they won’t have an opportunity to become a lawyer in Texas. It becomes an equity issue, the lawmaker said.

Valley attorneys speculate that the reason State lawmakers won’t approve a new school for the area is because of the money or the perception that there are already too many lawyers in Texas.

A hard road to find affordable legal services

Edinburg public interest attorney Pablo J. Almaguer has been a firsthand witness to how a dearth of attorneys can impact the availability of affordable legal services.

When he first started practicing in the Valley, there was one legal aid attorney to every 20,000 residents eligible for free or reduced-cost legal services, Almaguer estimated. That was about 20 years ago. Since then, Almaguer guesses that the ratio has improved to about one legal aid attorney for every 8,000 eligible residents.

“That number is pressing and it correlates to the small number of lawyers practicing here,” Almaguer said. “The more attorneys there are, the more ability for pro bono services.”

Almaguer points to Starr County, northwest of McAllen, as a prime example of the attorney shortage. Among the 64,000 residents, there are 47 attorneys practicing, according to State Bar data.

For a “pretty good-size county with one of the largest poverty populations in the area,” there are not many attorneys available to do pro bono work. If Almaguer can find five lawyers to offer some of their services for free, he feels like he has done a good job. But even finding that many can be a challenge.

Beyond just more affordable legal services, Valley residents could benefit from a law school that offered specialized programs focusing on immigration law or border issues, local attorneys have observed. Those areas of law are particularly pertinent to the legal issues experienced in the area, Martinez said.

A Valley law school could also produce more Spanish-speaking attorneys to cater to greater Spanish-speaking populations nearby.

“I speak Spanish and when I was first starting in the 1980s and ’90s, I would go to places where I was the only attorney to speak Spanish,” Fischer said. “If I spoke Spanish in a courtroom – I was in Denton once and this happened – I spoke in Spanish to one of my clients coming in and all these other people who couldn’t speak English would form a line behind me and try to talk with me. It’s not like that anymore, but any law school down here would have more Spanish-speaking lawyers to help fill that gap.”

The staircase to the second floor of the Bexar County Justice Center.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The staircase to the second floor of the Bexar County Justice Center.

Garza Law School proves to be a cautionary tale

The Valley was at one time home to a law school. The Garza Law School, named after Reynaldo G. Garza, the first Mexican-American federal judge, was founded in 1984 in Brownsville, according to media reports from the time.

The school later relocated to Edinburg but struggled to gain accreditation from the American Bar Association. The Texas State Bar gave students a waiver in the late 1980s, allowing those already enrolled to take the bar exam, but the waiver expired and the school didn’t achieve accreditation.

In the early 1990s, Garza Law School students were taking classes at a San Benito high school and in a rented meeting room in an Edinburg motel.

This can be a cautionary tale for some advocates for a new law school to be established.

“Should it be done?” asked Edinburg attorney Joe Escobedo, a former director of the State Bar. “If you look at the numbers, it seems like it should. If you are going to do it, you need to do it right. From the beginning it needs to be done with the aim to get accredited and for our kids to be able to take the bar exam and become lawyers. You just can’t half-ass it.”

“[With the Garza Law School,] it seems like somebody checked the box off and said we now have a law school – and by the way they named it after a remarkable man, but they sure as hell didn’t do what needed to be done to make it a success.”

Having a reputable higher education institution as the host of the school could give a nascent law school a lot of credibility, Escobedo said. The problem is most of Texas’ prominent universities already operate law schools.

Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, St. Mary’s University, South Texas College of Law, Texas A&M University, Texas Southern University, Texas Tech University, University of Houston, University of Texas, and UNT Dallas currently run law schools. And while universities sometimes operate multiples of other graduate programs like medical schools, there isn’t one university system in the state that operates multiple law schools.

Escobedo’s guess as to why not: “lack of political will.”

The cost to establish a new law school

Martinez’s bill came with what some may view as a hefty fiscal note. Legislative Budget Board officials consulted with University of Texas System officials to project the cost of a new building at more $52.5 million.

(Officials with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, or THECB, estimated the cost to establish a law school was roughly $38 million, based on what it took to get UNT Dallas’ program up and running.)

Any new law school would also assume close to a $1 million cost annually to maintain a library collection, but the money likely wouldn’t be needed until at least fiscal year 2026 because of the time it takes to establish a school, with approvals needed from a university system’s office and its board of regents; the Legislature, which meets only every two years; and the THECB, which can take about a year to review a proposal.

While Martinez plans to continue pushing for a new law school in his area during the next regular legislative session that starts in 2021, it seems unlikely such a law school would be established and open for students in the next five years.

Not wanting to wait to expand legal education in an area that needs it, law schools have gotten creative about how to educate the community on legal rights and practices.

In 2015, St. Mary’s University School of Law became the first law school to open a master’s program in legal education. Graduates can’t practice law, but they can apply their legal knowledge within their current professions.

Two years ago, the Texas A&M University School of Law’s San Antonio Center followed suit and opened a similar master’s program. The first class just graduated after completing its two-year program. 

D’Anna Wallace, a recent graduate and marketing manager for Ford, Powell, and Carson Architects, said she plans to use her new A&M degree to better understand contracts.

The Texas A&M center’s director, Mark Burge, compares the master’s in jurisprudence degree his center offers to a master’s of business administration, meant for professionals who are interested in furthering their expertise in the legal profession.

While it can’t fill the whole need for more legal education in South Texas, Burge said it helps cover some it in the area.

“We’re at a time where the law isn’t getting any easier to interpret, it’s actually getting more complicated as time goes on,” Burge said. “But we have less and less lawyers to interpret it. It doesn’t make any sense.”

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