Kelly Maxwell is in her final few months as a law student and scholarship recipient at USD School of Law. As she looks back on her time at the law school, she remembers the interactions and connections she made with classmates, professors, and practicing attorneys. One moment that stands out in her mind is when she met two South Dakota Supreme Court Justices at an Intramural Moot Court Competition. After reviewing the fact pattern and conducting legal research over several months, Maxwell composed a fifteen-page brief to present during the competition and moved on to the top 16 for oral arguments. While she did not find herself as a finalist in the competition, she did win the Best Brief award for her superb writing skills.
“Supreme Court Justices Glen Severson and Lori Wilbur saw me receive this award. They came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘We’ll remember your name. We always need good writers as Supreme Court Clerks,’” Maxwell said. “It was a memorable experience to have them compliment me on my academic success.”
For Tom Geu, dean of USD School of Law, stories like Kelly’s illustrate how close-knit the legal community is in South Dakota. “Graduates tend to practice law where they go to school. They have opportunities to make meaningful connections with the legal community that lead to internships and other opportunities.”
According to the State Bar of South Dakota, up to 90 percent of attorneys and judges practicing in the state graduated from USD’s law school. Four out of the five supreme court justices and 35 out of the 42 judges in the seven judicial circuit courts are USD Law grads.
“As the only law school in the state, we serve an important role in ensuring that citizens across South Dakota have access to legal services,” Dean Geu said. “Where will the circuit judge in Buffalo come from in 15 years if our law school isn’t thriving?”
While USD School of Law is nationally ranked, recognized for having a trial competition team that is invited to the most elite competitions, holds the highest proportion of graduates in state judicial clerkships of any law school in the country, and was named the 6th best value law school in the U.S. by National Jurist Magazine in 2017, it hasn’t escaped the national trend of low application rates and enrollment that began in 2009. That means USD School of Law is competing with schools they’ve never had to compete with before to attract students.
“Law school is already difficult but knowing that my education is supported eases some of the stress and makes the experience more meaningful. Thanks to the support of donors, I’m able to concentrate on my classes and make the most of my time at USD Law," Maxwell said.
To combat this decline, USD School of Law has initiated the “15 x 15 campaign.” The goal is to raise scholarship funds for full tuition for 15 law students in each of the three law classes, resulting in $15,000 per year for each student. Dean Geu believes these scholarships will encourage highly qualified students to apply who may not have otherwise due to other obligations, such as family or finances. Having the opportunity to receive a $45,000 scholarship to cover all three years of an affordable education at a top-rated law school will be significant.
“We believe the scholarships provide freedom,” Dean Geu said.
For Maxwell, going to USD Law made sense because of its affordability and the ability to set foot where most of the state’s practicing attorneys attended school.
“Law school is already difficult but knowing that my education is supported eases some of the stress and makes the experience more meaningful. Thanks to the support of donors, I’m able to concentrate on my classes and make the most of my time at USD Law,” Maxwell said.
Upon graduation, she will work as a clerk for the U.S. District Court of South Dakota for the Honorable Karen E. Schreier in Sioux Falls for two years. This job gives her a front row seat to witness federal and civil cases and will provide hands-on experience researching and otherwise assisting Schreier with her duties.
But this opportunity may not have been possible had it not been for the scholarship money Maxwell received. Instead of worrying about where next semester’s tuition would come from, Maxwell has focused on studying and participating in moot court competitions and, as a result, is currently ranked in the top 10 percent of her class. The generous support from donors has allowed her to spend her time at USD Law honing her legal skills as she achieves her dream of becoming an attorney.
Dean Geu points out that in South Dakota, lawyers play a major role in access to justice and economic development. Laws have spawned entire industries, such as banking and trusts, in the state. USD School of Law graduates also fill many notable leadership positions in a variety of businesses and industries across South Dakota, including our own USD President James W. Abbott and Avera Health’s President and CEO John Porter.
“We must meet the needs of students, but we must meet the scholarship offers from other law schools, too, if we are going to keep the best and brightest in South Dakota,” Dean Geu said. “It’s important, now more than ever, that USD Law continues to provide the state with graduates who can excel as lawyers and innovate in many fields.”