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New Seattle University “satellite campus” will let Alaskans finish law school in Anchorage

For the first time, law students will be able to complete part of their legal education without leaving Alaska at a planned Seattle University School of Law “satellite campus” in Anchorage announced this week.

Attorneys and judges say they hope the move leads to more homegrown lawyers in Alaska -- the only state without its own law school. The idea is to shrink the time necessary to relocate out-of-state for law school to two  school years instead of three. 

If the program gets final approval from the American Bar Association,  students will be able to spend summers and their entire third year attending Seattle University law classes on the campus of Alaska Pacific University, starting in 2015. There’s no cap on the number of students who could participate, but organizers say anticipate starting with 10-15 per year. 

It may make the choice to start a legal career easier for some Alaskans, said Alaska Bar Association executive director Deborah O’Regan. 

“There’s Alaskans that would have gone to law school but it’s not practical to go Outside for three years,” she said. 

 The satellite campus isn’t the Seattle University School of Law’s first foray into the state. 

For 12 years, the university has operated a summer program that brings law students from across the country to Anchorage for Alaska-specific law courses and internships. 

About 60 percent of the 170 students who have been through  the summer program returned to Alaska to work, with high job placements rates, program director Stephanie Nichols said. 

The proposed satellite campus program would combine internships with law firms, nonprofits and state agencies with traditional classroom instruction. Local attorneys and judges will likely be tapped to help teach, said Nichols, who is from Fairbanks. 

Seattle University is choosing to expand its law school offerings at a time when law school applications across the country are down in the wake of a depressed job market for graduates. 

“We have been planning to do this long before law schools started looking for other ways to branch out,” said Nichols. “This has been in the works for years and years.” 

Still, “it’s a pretty interesting time for a law school to be doing something as entrepreneurial as this,” she said. 

A year of tuition at Seattle University’s law school runs about $41,000, not counting books or room and board. 

Scholarships specifically for Alaskan students are available, Nichols said. 

It isn’t just available to those doing their entire law degree through the university.  If a student attending a different law school secured permission to “visit away” at Seattle University, they could take advantage of the third year in Anchorage program and still get a degree from their original institution, Nichols said. 

This is the second partnership extending law school access to Alaskans announced in recent weeks. 

In May, the University of Alaska Anchorage announced a “3+3”  program with the Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore. that would allow UAA undergraduates with three years of credits to enter the law school early.

Both programs are intended, in part, to lower barriers to attending law school.

The Seattle University program has found an enthusiastic backer in Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe, who the university says wrote a letter to the American Bar Association in support of it.

An announcement from the university quotes Fabe as saying she expects the satellite campus to “open doors to legal and judicial careers” to Alaskans and to increase the diversity of lawyers practicing in Alaska.

There are 2,456 active members of the state bar association, O’Regan said. The majority practice in Southcentral Alaska. Very few lawyers are located in remote areas of the state: According to state bar statistics, only 31 attorneys practice in the Third Judicial District, which includes Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome and Unalakleet. 

Eventually, the program might help sow seeds for Alaska-raised attorneys to practice in their hometowns in under-served areas of the state, Nichols said. 

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.