New Appalachian School of Law dean faces challenges
Buchanan County native Elizabeth McClanahan became the dean of the Grundy-based Appalachian School of Law in September, one day after retiring as a Virginia Supreme Court justice.
She immediately faced a challenge: the American Bar Association’s tightened law school accreditation requirements. At least 75% of graduates now must pass a bar exam within two years instead of five. ASL’s class of 2017 met the requirement, but only 65% of the 2018 class has passed the bar so far. ASL needs two more graduates to pass by February.
McClanahan says she’s “laser-focused” on the issue, working to improve the school’s programs and students. She’s raised money for more scholarships, a move that has helped boost incoming students’ average LSAT scores.
Before ASL’s founding in 2000, the ratio of lawyers to residents in far Southwest Virginia was 1-to-915. That statistic has improved to 1-to-745 but remains behind the statewide ratio of one lawyer for every 353 people. That’s another focus for McClanahan.
“The best way to keep people in Appalachia is to educate them there,” she says. “In small towns, lawyers are community leaders. They’re on school boards. They’re on boards of supervisors. They’re in Rotary. They’re in Kiwanis. That’s another part of our mission, to make sure we still have community service leaders in Appalachia.”
ASL has 164 students this fall, and all are engaged in community service. They log an average 18,500 volunteer hours annually at a free law clinic and other organizations.
Justice Cleo Powell, the first African American woman on the Virginia Supreme Court, has agreed to be an ASL lecturer and to serve as a liaison to the commonwealth’s historically black colleges and universities. Building upon an existing partnership with Virginia Tech’s Pamplin School of Business, McClanahan is working toward agreements with other Tech schools for certificate programs. She’s also collaborating with other colleges to allow students to earn bachelor’s and law degrees in six years instead of seven.
“We’re a fourth-tier law school. That’s what we’ll be — and frankly, that’s fine with us,” McClanahan says. “But hopefully we will have these niches that are marketable programs. But more importantly, we want to educate people in the most excellent way and be selective about the people that we have.”