Jeff Kinsler wouldn’t look out of place with paint under his fingernails or a tool belt around his waist. The dean of Belmont University’s College of Law, Kinsler beams as he jaunts through the new Randall and Sadie Baskin Center a week before its grand opening.
For the past three years, Kinsler has been in different stages of planning and implementing the program at Belmont’s new law school. It opened last year in a temporary building with its first class of 132 students. Now, as the program welcomes its second class, the school is also moving into some lavish new digs.
The 71,000-square-foot Randall and Sadie Baskin Center was funded by a $7 million donation from the founder and former owner of Brentwood-based Continental Life Insurance Co. The facility features a multistory library with glass windows looking down into an octagonal space. Natural light illuminates the whole building. A mock courtroom on the first floor comes complete with a jury deliberation room, a judge’s quarters and, of course, a witness stand. The room will be used to hold actual sessions of the Tennessee Supreme Court and Tennessee Court of Appeals, according to Kinsler.
But once the sparkling building opens on Monday, Kinsler will turn his full attention to the most vital aspect of Belmont Law’s second year — American Bar Association accreditation.
The ABA stamp of approval is crucial because it allows Belmont graduates to sit for the bar exam in any state, rather than just in Tennessee.
And the importance of this year isn’t lost on Kinsler — who already successfully guided Elon University and Appalachian School of Law to full ABA approval.
“I think about [the ABA standards] in my sleep, to be honest,” Kinsler said. “It’s a tough hurdle, but we’re not the first to go through it. And compared to schools I’ve been watching, we’re in really good shape.”
According to Kinsler, Belmont Law’s first year went relatively smoothly. They started the year with 132 students and ended with 130.
Currently, Belmont can reach out only to LSAT-taking students who indicate they are open to unaccredited universities. The bulk of test-takers don’t check that box, according to Kinsler.
Still, Belmont has aggressively pursued students — and has had several come to them. The class makeup is largely regional due to the unaccredited status, but the class includes several students from other regions of the country.
Kinsler said Belmont’s specialized area in entertainment law has been a big draw. One student, he said, transferred to Belmont from a law school in Los Angeles. In this upcoming year, 50 of the 130 second-year students are signed up for an elective entertainment law course.
Considering Belmont hasn’t graduated any classes yet, the quality of the incoming students will be a major point for judging by the ABA. Kinsler maintains that Belmont’s first two classes are academically strong.
“If you look at schools who had a traditional model [without large endowments], we’re probably the best in the last 30 years nationwide,” Kinsler said.
Belmont’s first class of law school students had a median LSAT score of 154. Comparatively, the median LSAT score at University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Vanderbilt were 160 and 167, respectively. The median score for incoming law students at the University of Memphis was 155.
The University of La Verne in Ontario, Calif., was the most recent law school to be provisionally approved by the ABA. The median LSAT for its first class was 153.
Facilities, the quality of the library, faculty accolades and academic rigor are also considered in the accreditation process. And Belmont leaders say they are putting a strong foot forward in all those categories.
“Accreditation is always an interesting challenge. But the nice thing about accreditation is that they laid out the standards so you have the opportunity to say what you interpret the standards to be, and then provide evidence in support of those things,” Belmont provost Thomas Burns said.
“At this point, we feel pretty confident in saying that every one of the standards is addressed well and completely. It’s just a matter of how the accreditation site team feels about it when they are here.”
Belmont’s official site visit is Sept. 23-26.
There is no timetable for when the ABA will make a final decision. Belmont will appear before a committee at one of the ABA’s quarterly meetings in either January or March. That council will make a recommendation, and a committee will make a final executive decision at a later date.
Belmont could conceivably recruit and accept its third class before they receive the final call about accreditation. If Belmont does join the ranks of 202 other ABA-accredited schools, it’ll be a monumental moment for the university. Kinsler expects applications would double.
“From a recruiting standpoint, we’ll end up now being in the ABA publications. We’ll get access to everyone who takes the LSAT — not just those who check unaccredited,” Kinsler said. “Just having national accreditation, once we have a full cycle, our applications will probably double. There’s a lot of significance in this happening. … It will make things easier, no question.”
Burns echoed that sentiment.
“When you start a concept of creating a law school, you have a vision of what you think it will be and hope it will be, but until you get accreditation, you can’t achieve any of that,” Burns said.
“Once you move past accreditation, you don’t have to talk about the what-ifs. You can talk about the reality of having accreditation ... I think it changes the perception of the institution as a whole.”
The controversial Gonzales
It wasn’t the students who attracted the most attention to Belmont’s law school in Year One. It was their highest-profile faculty member, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who garnered the attention.
Gonzales resigned from his attorney general post in 2007 after Congressional criticism of his handling of the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. His support of controversial counterterrorism tactics drew the ire of the National Lawyers Guild, a group of activist lawyers that made waves by ambushing Gonzales’ constitutional law class earlier this year.
“We certainly anticipated the reaction. ... I can’t say we anticipated everything,” Kinsler said. “There’s no question we got some criticism from the outside.”
But Kinsler said Gonzales has been an important asset to the program — and that his style of teaching is in stark contrast to the image generated in the wake of the waterboarding scandal.
“He’s not even remotely an ideologue, either. [He’s] a pragmatist. This is a guy who spent the first 15 years of his career as a real estate lawyer at a firm in Houston,” Kinsler said. “Ideologues don’t spend 15 years as real estate lawyers.”
Burns called Gonzales “a genuine person who has a passion for interacting and supporting students.” In one instance, Kinsler said, he took an opponent of the hire to lunch with Gonzales — and the person’s critical opinion changed after the meeting.
“It’s been good,” Kinsler said. “[Hiring Gonzales] has been a draw.”