Aiming high: New Texas A&M law school dean has a long list of objectives

Scott Nishimura

Andrew Morriss has a lot on his desk as new dean of the Texas A&M University School of Law in downtown Fort Worth.

With law schools continuing to generate more lawyers than there are jobs, Morriss wants to make Aggie lawyers more distinctive and marketable. He’s looking for ways to link A&M’s expertise in areas such as engineering, business and political science to the law school curriculum. Other objectives for the dean, who was named to his post May 1, include figuring out ways to ensure that Aggie lawyers don’t graduate with crippling debt and hiring more faculty.

And with the law school “bursting at the seams” of its 90,000-square-foot building, Morriss says he’ll immediately start discussions among faculty on options – build up on the site or move elsewhere downtown. A&M bought the Texas Wesleyan University law school last year for $73 million, with a payoff schedule that includes a fifth-year option to buy the real estate for $11 million.

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“We want to be downtown, and we want to be in Fort Worth,” said Morriss, who was a law professor at the University of Alabama before coming to A&M.

The new brand has already produced a jump in applications since A&M took over the law school last August. As of June 30, the school had received 2,106 applications for admission, compared with 1,694 at the same time last year.

Enrollment is about 225. Morriss, whose expertise includes regulatory issues involving the environment, energy and offshore finance, sat down for a Q&A with the Fort Worth Business Press a few hours into his first day on the job, July 1.

Q: There’s a surplus of lawyers in this country today. So why A&M? Why can the A&M law school be more relevant?

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A: What’s important to think about … is we’re starting with a law school that’s already delivering an excellent legal education. What A&M brings is a world-class university’s resources. We’re hoping that what’s going to develop over time is a partnership between the College Station units [and law school]. We have the Bush School of Government, the science and engineering departments there. What this means for Fort Worth is you’re going to see more of the A&M intellectual resources focused here, and that’s going to be great for the Fort Worth economy. To be able to have the links between our center for intellectual property here and the production of intellectual property at A&M is going to benefit the Fort Worth economy.

Q: What opportunities do you see? What’s the market asking for?

A: Law firm employment is down over the last 10 years. One of the things that reflects is [that] it’s not possible for students to find employment that allows them to carry around the debt they have in the past. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t enormous legal needs. So law schools need to find ways to make legal education more affordable. As it becomes more affordable, a lot of unmet legal needs will be possible to be met.

Q: What unmet needs do we have?

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A: This is an international business hub. So we hope to better prepare students to help clients. And that’s not just large firms. Small businesses are doing business internationally now, connections between the D-FW area and Asia are incredible. We need students who understand how to help a small to medium-sized business do a contract with a supplier in China. Those kinds of things are not something that law schools have traditionally taught. That’s something you learned when you went off to a firm.

There’s a growing need for equipping foreign lawyers to understand and deal with the American legal system because now they have a subsidiary in the United States. Lots of Chinese companies [now own] U.S. assets. They don’t need U.S. lawyers living in China, but they need their Chinese lawyers to be able to talk to U.S. lawyers.

Another huge growth area is regulatory compliance. Just in financial services in the last few months, multibillion-dollar fines being levied against major banks. The trend now is for businesses that handle any amount of cash to have to have an [anti-money laundering] compliance program. We’re talking about car dealers and jewelry stores.

They can’t afford to hire a compliance officer full time. They can afford to hire lawyers. Lawyers are going to be really well positioned to serve that position for these businesses that are now confronting serious regulatory requirements from the federal government aimed at tracking financial transactions, anti-terror stuff. All this is pushing down farther and farther into the economy.

Q: What about enrollment. Does it stay around 225, or does A&M have higher ideas?

A: I don’t think it’s larger than that. I think all law schools are going to be smaller going forward for several years while we think through this.

Q: What about faculty [now 43]? Do you expect that number to grow?

A: I think we’ll see the faculty expanding. We’re starting with an excellent base. I would think we’d want to be at least three or four bigger than we are now. And that’s a gradual process.

Q: What about this building? What do you like about it, what challenges do you see with it?

A: We’re right in downtown, we’ve got great parking. It’s a great location. We’re kind of bursting at the seams is the issue. So one of the things we need to do is think through what the options are for this location verses what the options are for other locations downtown.

Q: Why do you want to be downtown and, more broadly, in an urban setting verses being in College Station?

A: Being around lawyers is really important. It’s important for students to be around lawyers. It’s important for us to be able to deliver programs that they are interested in. Having a convenient location means lawyers are more likely to come and be adjuncts and enrich our curriculum or speak on programs.

Q: Texas A&M’s agreement with Texas Wesleyan includes the option in Year 5 to buy the property. I take it this means you’ll need to have this figured out in that time?

A: We’ll have to have the money to pay for this property [or do something else]. So we’re going to start thinking about this right away. That’s one of the first things I want to do is get the faculty thinking through our options. This building was built by AT&T in such a way that it could be expanded – good foundation. The development of the downtown has created some really attractive options. One way or the other, we need a building four years from now. We’ll be doing something.