New Appalachian School of Law dean faces challenges
Retired Justice Elizabeth McClanahan is a Buchanan native.
Retired Supreme Court of Virginia Justice Elizabeth McClanahan grew up in the Buchanan County community of Garden Creek, about 12 miles from Grundy.
“Grundy was the big city,” says McClanahan, who retired from the state’s highest court on Sept. 1. “It’s the county seat. It’s the only town in the county.”
Grundy’s also the home of the Appalachian School of Law (ASL), where McClanahan has been the dean since Sept. 2.
McClanahan came home after a prestigious career serving as Virginia’s chief deputy attorney general, a judge on the Court of Appeals of Virginia, vice rector of William & Mary, chairman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and a lawyer specializing in gas and oil issues. She’s also a senior advisor to the dean and an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin School of Business and has taught at ASL since 2011.
Passing through Shortt Gap into Buchanan County, McClanahan says, “You kind of go down into the mountains and they wrap all around you. I just feel like I’m being hugged.”
But McClanahan knows not everyone shares those feelings. Appalachians educated outside the region rarely return to live there because of a shortage of private and public-sector jobs, especially those that pay well.
“The best way to keep people in Appalachia is to educate them there,” McClanahan 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.”
Appalachia is also a place that needs lawyers. Across Virginia, there’s a lawyer for every 353 people. In the seven counties of far Southwest Virginia, the ratio is 1-to-745. Before ASL was founded, though, it was 1-to-915.
The Appalachian School of Law is young, having graduated its first class in 2000, and small. Enrollment was 164 in the fall 2019. It’s housed in what was Grundy High School, then Grundy Junior High, a Great Depression-era edifice that resembles the kinds of schools that federal works programs built all across the country.
ASL provides 48 jobs and an annual direct economic impact of $5.6 million in a county with roughly 21,000 residents. In an average year, the school’s students contribute more than 18,500 hours of service at the school’s monthly free law clinic and other organizations.
McClanahan faces another major 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 state bar exam 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 its students. She’s raised money to offer more scholarships, which has allowed the school to raise the Law School Admission Test scores of the most recently admitted class.
“We’re continuing to try to move those LSAT numbers up,” McClanahan says. “We’re recruiting heavily people who have better LSAT scores.”
Believing that specialized training gives students an advantage — and gives the school a recruiting advantage — ASL has added certificates in cybersecurity policy and management to its existing certificates in natural resources law and criminal law. The cybersecurity certificates require online courses through Virginia Tech’s Pamplin School of Business.
ASL is working toward building a certificate program with Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine. The law school and Virginia Tech are hosting a pipeline symposium next year, and they’re developing a class built around what engineers should know about the law and what lawyers should know about engineering.
ASL is also working on “3+3” programs that would guarantee some regional college students admission to the law school if they meet certain criteria, allowing them to earn a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in six years rather than seven.
McClanahan has put the connections she’s built over the years to work at ASL, attracting an impressive list of lecturers, speakers and teachers to campus. Retired Judge Larry Elder, with whom she served on the state Court of Appeals, is a lecturer, and two State Corporation Commission judges co-taught utilities law with McClanahan last semester. Supreme Court of Virginia Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons spoke to students and Justice Cleo Powell, the first African American woman on the state’s high court, has agreed to be the school’s Sutin Lecturer and to serve as the school’s liaison to Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities.
“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.”