Nashville School of Law (NSL) is a private non-profit law school founded in 1911 that offers high-quality legal education at an affordable tuition. Classes are held exclusively at night. Most students enrolled in the School continue full-time employment throughout their law school career. Our students are teachers, police officers, paralegals, insurance agents, doctors, business owners, factory workers, real estate agents and various professionals too numerous to list. Our students appreciate the opportunity to study law while continuing to pursue their present career and pay for their education at the same time.
Obtaining a J.D. requires a minimum of four years of study. Classes begin in August and end in May and are held Monday through Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. First-year and second-year students attend classes two nights per week. Third-year and fourth-year students attend classes three nights per week.
The mission of Nashville School of Law is to provide high-quality legal education at an affordable tuition.
During our nation’s first century, persons desiring to practice law most often served as apprentices to more experienced lawyers. They would “read law” while learning the practical competencies needed to practice law successfully. When they completed their training, aspiring lawyers would become full-fledged members of their local legal community after passing an informal oral examination.
Lawyers began to organize on the state and national level following the Civil War. Their goal was to establish the practice of law as a “learned profession.” To achieve this goal, they advocated replacing apprenticeships with a law school education, raising the standards for entry into the profession, and standardizing the process for admission to the practice of law.
These reforms dramatically changed legal education in the United States. During the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, the number of law schools increased; the case method replaced skills training; law degrees replaced apprenticeships; and states began administering written bar examinations. As the study of law came to be viewed as an academic exercise, training in the practical competencies needed to practice law successfully was pushed aside.
The number of law schools affiliated with a college or university increased gradually. These schools generally offered a three-year curriculum and an approach to legal education patterned after Harvard Law School. They employed full-time law professors, assembled large law libraries, and awarded law degrees. Eventually, they adopted pre-admission education requirements and entrance examinations to screen applicants.
During the same period, the growth in the number of unaffiliated evening law schools greatly exceeded the growth in the number of full-time law schools. Their curriculums were more heavily weighted toward training students in practical competencies. Their faculties were experienced lawyers and judges with close ties to their local legal communities whose focus was on teaching and mentoring. While the setting for the instruction moved from law offices to classrooms, the essential elements of the apprenticeship model remained. Students in the evening programs were mentored into the profession by the same professionals with whom they would eventually practice law.
The evening law schools proved to be extremely popular. They democratized legal education by providing an opportunity to obtain a legal education to working class adults for whom the pathway through the collegiate system was out of reach. The students saw these schools as an affordable gateway to a professional legal career with the attendant opportunities for social advancement and financial security. As a result, the number of students enrolled in evening law schools after the turn of the twentieth century far exceeded the number of students attending full-time law schools.
Many of the evening law schools were proprietary. However, during this time, several nonprofit organizations entered the field of legal education. One of these organizations, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), was already providing other educational opportunities to its members.
Nineteen law schools affiliated in some manner with the YMCA were created between 1891 and 1927. Many of the founders of these schools were practicing graduates of prestigious law schools who recognized the need for a part-time legal education for students who could not afford full-time legal study. The students attending these schools consisted of government employees, teachers, middle managers, and other working men and women. They displayed the tenacity and desire for self-improvement that characterizes today’s part-time students who are willing to take on the challenge of studying law along with their commitments to their families and employers.
In 1911, four graduates of Vanderbilt Law School founded the YMCA Night Law School in Nashville, Tennessee. Their intent was to provide working men and women with a quality legal education at an affordable price. They believed that creating an opportunity to study law part time would benefit not only the students but also Nashville and its residents. In a unique collaboration, the School’s students completed part of their course work at nearby Cumberland Law School and were awarded Cumberland law degrees. However, in 1927, the Nashville YMCA Night Law School started awarding degrees in its own name.
By the mid-1930s, legal education in Tennessee mirrored legal education in other states. In 1937, the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) commissioned an independent study of Tennessee’s twelve law schools. Three of these schools, all affiliated with universities, offered a full-time curriculum. The remaining schools were independent and offered evening programs. Of the twelve, only two of the day programs had received accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA). In 1938, 915 students were studying law in Tennessee. Almost 60% of these students were enrolled in one of the nine evening programs. Over 20% of the students attending evening programs were enrolled at the Nashville YMCA Night Law School.
As the twentieth century progressed, national organizations such as the ABA, the American Association of Law Schools, and the Law School Admissions Council set out to elevate, standardize, and regulate the practice of law. Their efforts undermined the viability of many unaffiliated evening law schools. The schools affiliated with the YMCA were no exception because the YMCA could no longer afford to fund and operate accredited legal education programs. Accordingly, to remain viable, the law schools affiliated with the YMCA were forced to seek relationships with other colleges and universities and, in the process, were required to shift from evening programs to full-time day programs.
As all the other YMCA affiliated law schools were either assimilated or closed, the Nashville YMCA Night Law School became the only remaining independent law school with YMCA roots. The School eventually severed its ties with the YMCA. It was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation in 1927 and changed its name to the Nashville School of Law (NSL) in 1986. Finally, in 1991, it moved out of its classrooms in the basement of the downtown YMCA and into its own facility on the outskirts of Nashville. When the University of Memphis graduated its evening program’s last class in 1988, the School became the only law school in Tennessee offering exclusively evening classes.
Throughout the School’s history, its leaders have stayed true to its historic mission to provide a quality legal education to working men and women at an affordable price. On several occasions, the School has participated in serious merger discussions with other public and private colleges and universities in Tennessee. While all these discussions were cordial and serious, none resulted in an affiliation agreement.
During all these negotiations, the School maintained its commitment to offering evening classes at an affordable price. Accordingly, it insisted that any agreement contain iron-clad commitments that the evening program would not be closed and that the program’s cost would not become a barrier to admission. Because the institutions desiring to acquire the School envisioned opening ABA-accredited full-time programs, they were willing to agree only that they would continue to operate the evening program as long as it was financially viable. Without an assurance of the continuation of an affordable evening program, the School declined to proceed with the affiliation discussions.
As it has done since 1911, the School continues to provide a path to a satisfying legal career for a broadly diverse group of students. The student body is made up largely of working men and women for whom the full-time study of law is not possible. The School’s leaders believe that the legal system as a whole benefits from the ideas, values, and concerns of persons who might otherwise be excluded from the profession.
Like other law schools, the School’s admissions process includes consideration of the applicants’ undergraduate grade point averages and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. However, the School believes that there are other relevant predictors and that over-reliance on grade point averages and standardized test scores tends to exclude applicants whose work experience, background, and personal qualities reflect their ability to succeed in law school and in the practice of law. The School’s challenge is to maximize its students’ ability to succeed and to enable them to outperform the standard predictors.
In addition to grade point averages and LSAT scores, the School’s admissions process gives weight to: (1) prior experience or employment in fields related to the practice of law, the courts, or the justice system; (2) demonstrated oral and written communication skills; (3) employment in positions organizing or managing others; (4) community involvement and service; (5) employment in fields requiring research, analysis, reasoning, or strategic planning skills; (6) activities demonstrating diligence, integrity, and honesty; (7) experience demonstrating the ability to organize and manage personal work and the work of others; and (8) experience demonstrating the ability to work collaboratively.
The School’s curriculum is designed to prepare and empower its students for professionally rewarding and financially sustainable careers. Rewarding legal careers are not limited to large corporate law firms. They can also be found in the public and nonprofit sectors, in business, and in other private practice settings. In fact, the great majority of legal jobs in the private sector today are in small and medium sized firms and in solo practice.
The School’s students study law to become lawyers, not legal scholars. Accordingly, the curriculum is not focused solely on traditional casebook courses that emphasize legal doctrine and theory. The courses emphasize the practice skills and competencies required to be an ethical and effective professional. While understanding that a lawyer’s education should neither begin nor end in law school, the School’s increased emphasis on writing and oral communication skills, experiential training, and professionalism enables the students to be more practice-ready than many of their contemporaries.
Legal education must keep pace with the rapid and significant changes in the practice of law. Accordingly, the School continuously examines and adjusts its curriculum to better prepare its students for the challenges of modern legal practice.
In a 2012 self-study report, the School addressed the challenges resulting from the dramatic increase in applications beginning in 2000. The School had moved into new, larger quarters in 2005 and had added a second class in 2007 to accommodate more students without increasing the size of the existing class. Focusing on admissions, curriculum, attrition, and bar passage rate, the report noted the importance of (1) providing additional academic support for first-year students, (2) offering additional courses to improve bar exam readiness, and (3) increasing the grade point average required to advance and graduate.
The School conducted a needs assessment in 2014. Included in this assessment was a survey enabling students, graduates, and faculty (1) to identify the current curriculum’s strengths and weaknesses, (2) to identify and prioritize those competencies lawyers should have at the beginning of their careers, and (3) to recommend the courses and other programs that would be most effective in training students in these competencies.
On several occasions prior to 2015, the deans at the University of Tennessee College of Law and Vanderbilt Law School certified to licensing boards in other states that the School’s curriculum was substantially equivalent to the curriculum at an ABA-accredited law school. In 2015, the School retained University of Tennessee Dean Doug Blaze and Vanderbilt Associate Dean Susan Kay to review its curriculum and to recommend adjustments in light of current ABA curriculum standards. Relying on their extensive law school accreditation experience, on-site visits, and review of the School’s faculty and academic policies, Deans Blaze and Kay provided recommendations designed to assure that the School’s curriculum continued to mirror the curriculum at ABA-approved schools.
Upon receipt of the deans’ report, the School appointed an Education Excellence Task Force consisting of staff, faculty, students, and graduates to prioritize the action items in the report and to recommend how they should be carried out. The School began to implement the deans’ suggestions in 2016 and completed many of them during 2016 and 2017. To further improve the quality of its education, the School continues to implement the recommendations in the deans’ report, to monitor the results of the changes already made, and to make further improvements based on these results.
The School continues to require students to take traditional casebook courses in every subject tested on the Tennessee bar examination. However, the School also has increased the graduation requirements by mandating successful completion of additional required and elective courses. Among the most significant curriculum changes are:
Along with the expanded course offerings, the School has added courses and programs intended to better prepare students to be successful on the bar exam. Students are now required to take a substantive bar preparation course and to participate in a bar exam skills workshop during their final year of school. Students must also take practice bar exams at the end of the first and second years. In addition, the format of all written exams now must conform to the format of the questions on the bar exam.
While the School’s historic mission has been to give students an opportunity to earn a law degree, the students understand that with every opportunity to succeed comes an opportunity to fail. The students know they must earn their grades. The School assists students experiencing academic difficulties. However, when students continue to have academic difficulties even with assistance, the School’s practice is to counsel them regarding the likelihood of their success in law school and on the bar exam. The School collects data on all students to be better able to monitor their progress and to assess their success. This data enables the School to intervene in a more timely way to offer assistance to students who need it.
In addition to the expansion of course offerings, the School completed a substantial revision of its academic policies in 2017. The policies contain (a) a new grading scale and suggested grade distribution, (b) new advancement requirements, (c) revised attendance requirements, and (d) new examination protocols.
The quality of the School’s faculty complements its curriculum. The 43 adjunct professors collectively have more than 1,200 years of practice experience. Eleven are judges, and one is a former member of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Several have received adjunct appointments at other colleges, universities, and law schools. Current faculty members have earned law degrees at Cumberland School of Law, Emory University, Fordham University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Indiana University – Maurer, Loyola Law School (Los Angeles), Nashville School of Law, the Universities of Cincinnati, Kentucky, Memphis, Mississippi, Michigan, Tennessee, Toledo, and Virginia, Stanford University Vanderbilt University, Wake Forest University, and Wayne State University.
Faculty members are selected with specific reference to their experience and expertise in the subject they will teach. For example, the professor who teaches Bankruptcy is the Chapter 13 Trustee in Middle Tennessee. The Wills professor is one of the authors of Tennessee’s definitive text on wills and administration of estates. A criminal court judge, Nashville’s District Attorney General, and an experienced public defender teach the criminal law and practice courses. In addition, the School selects faculty members based on their engagement with the legal and the broader community. Accordingly, the current faculty includes a former TBA president.
Faculty members are expected to strike an appropriate balance between the theoretical and practical. Their performance is evaluated based on their work with students both inside and outside the classroom, not on the frequency of their publications. It is not uncommon for mentoring relationships to grow between students and the faculty, which last long after students graduate and enter the practice of law.
The School’s graduates are eligible to take the Tennessee bar examination based on the approval of the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners pursuant to Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7, § 2.03. The Tennessee Supreme Court amended the rule in 2001 to provide detailed standards for approving law schools that are not ABA-accredited and empowered the Board of Law Examiners to scrutinize these schools to ascertain their compliance with the standards. The graduates of schools that meet these standards are deemed eligible to take the Tennessee bar examination.
The current standards in Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7, § 2.03 require law schools to adopt a statement of mission and an independent governing board composed of persons who are not members of the School’s faculty. They cover the School’s (a) organization and administration, (b) faculty, (c) facilities, (d) library, (e) curriculum, admissions standards, and (f) the publication of basic consumer information.
When these standards were adopted, the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners retained an experienced legal educator with expertise in evaluating law schools seeking ABA accreditation to determine whether the School complied with the new standards. After the evaluator reported that the School satisfied Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7, § 2.03’s requirements, the Board approved the School and authorized its students to seek admission to the Tennessee bar by examination. The Board has continuously approved the School since the new standards were adopted in 2001.
Recent studies demonstrate that the rate of increase in the cost of legal education nationwide outstrips the rate of inflation. Many attribute this phenomenon to the costs associated with obtaining and maintaining ABA accreditation and with the financial pressures resulting from the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings. While these programs are intended to maintain the quality of legal education in the United States, there is growing concern that they may be imposing requirements that increase costs without conferring commensurate benefits.
The effects of the increasing cost of legal education are significant and far reaching. Tuition is becoming an insurmountable barrier for many persons aspiring to become lawyers. The burden falls more heavily on financially disadvantaged and minority groups and, thus, results in less diverse law school classes. Tuition discounting has become commonplace. However, rather than being need-based, the discounting favors applicants with high LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages whose admission will bolster a law school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. As a result, many law students with solid but less than stellar credentials are not offered discounts. Without discounts, these students either pursue other careers or attend law school without a discount and subsidize the cost of educating their higher-performing classmates.
Despite the prevalence of discounting, many students are forced to borrow heavily to pay for their legal education. Educational loans have been relatively easy to obtain, and so by all accounts, the amount of law school debt in the United States has skyrocketed. The effects of this debt are pernicious. A heavy debt load limits career options and makes it difficult to put the spirit of public service into practice. Students with significant debt need jobs with sufficient income to repay their student loans. Students’ career horizons narrow as the amount of their debt increases because jobs with salaries sufficient to pay the debt and to maintain a decent standard of living are becoming scarce.
Carrying a large debt and heavy interest burden is no way to begin a legal career. Many students who have incurred significant law school debt cannot afford entry-level public sector jobs or to work for legal services organizations, small or medium sized firms, or to begin a solo practice. Accordingly, law school debt contributes significantly to the legal profession’s current inability to make quality legal services available to under-served communities. The profession’s ability to advance the Rule of Law will be undermined further if future lawyers are priced out of the profession.
The School’s historic mission requires it to control the cost of its legal education. The School’s ability to fulfill its mission will be undermined if the cost of its education is beyond the students’ ability to pay.
The United States is fortunate to have many fine law schools that prepare their students to practice law. While ABA accreditation has promoted uniformity in legal education, the School does not subscribe to a “one-size-fits-all” model of legal education or to the notion that higher cost per student means higher educational quality. Consistent with the calls for different models of legal education, the School believes that there is room for “cost-saving teaching law schools.” As one leader in legal education observed at an ABA Accreditation Committee meeting in 2007, all law schools need not be the “Ritz Carlton.”
Unlike other law schools constrained by the costs associated with ABA accreditation and the U.S. News & World Report rankings, the School’s leaders have been able to control the costs without undermining effectiveness. The five areas that account for the significant part of our savings are: (1) the cost of the salaries and benefits for a full-time faculty, (2) the cost to support a full-time faculty, (3) the cost to subsidize a faculty’s academic research and writing, (4) the cost of maintaining a full-service, academically oriented law library, and (5) the cost associated with amenities and programs required for full-time students that are not necessary for part-time students.
Currently, the School’s annual tuition and fees range between $7,500 for first-year students to $10,680 for fourth-year students. These amounts are less than 50% of the annual resident tuition and fees currently charged by Tennessee’s two public law schools. They are between 15% and 25% of the annual tuition and fees currently charged by Tennessee’s three other private law schools. As a result, the entire cost of earning a J.D. degree from our school, including tuition, fees, and all instructional materials, is less than the current cost of attending one of Tennessee’s other private law schools for one year, and it is approximately 50% of the cost of earning a J.D. degree at Tennessee’s two public law schools.
While the School supports students who are receiving educational benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, it does not accept or participate in any government subsidized educational loan program. The students, most of whom are employed while attending law school, pay for their education as they progress and are able to earn their degree and graduate without amassing significant debt. Without debt, the School’s graduates are able to pursue careers that are intellectually challenging, financially secure, and socially meaningful.
Committed men and women have the power to remake themselves and to remake the communities in which they live. The School provides its students with the catalyst to make these changes. Success is measured by the success of the graduates, and the School’s graduates have succeeded in a broad range of careers.
The School’s graduates are practicing in 90 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. In some counties, every practicing lawyer is an NSL graduate. Many graduates have become judges. More than 100 graduates serve as state and local judges. One graduate served as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Two others have been elected to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, and one has been elected to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Four of the six criminal court judges in Nashville are NSL graduates.
The School’s graduates also can be found among the ranks of federal, state, and local officials. The School counts two United States Senators and one member of the United States House of Representatives among its graduates, as well as many current and former members of the Tennessee General Assembly and other local legislative bodies. One of the School’s graduates has served as State Treasurer; another has served as a member of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority; and another is a member of the Tennessee Board of Parole.
Many graduates have distinguished themselves in criminal justice and law enforcement, including elected District Attorneys General and District Public Defenders. Scores of assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders also graduated from our school. Many members of law enforcement are also NSL graduates.
In addition, NSL graduates have found success in business and community service. They are counted among Nashville and Middle Tennessee’s top bankers and wealth managers, real estate developers, financiers, entrepreneurs, and business owners. The civic contributions of two NSL graduates are so respected that the Nashville Bar Association and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee have named their most prestigious community service award in their honor.
The School is now an integral part of Tennessee’s legal history. True to its historic mission, it continues to be a unique institution where today’s leaders of the bench and bar teach tomorrow’s lawyers. It remains a place where dreams are fulfilled, where lives are changed, and where opportunities are created.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has also recognized that law schools in other states similar to the Nashville School of Law prepare their students to be successful and ethical legal professionals. Accordingly, beginning on January 1, 2016, the Court amended Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7, § 2.02 to enable graduates of law schools in other states that are not accredited by the ABA to be considered for admission to practice law in Tennessee by examination.
Obtaining a J.D. requires a minimum of four years of study. Classes begin in August and end in May and are held Monday through Thursday from 4:45 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. First-year and second-year students attend classes two nights per week. Third-year and fourth-year students attend classes three nights per week.
The school is located in a 33,000 square foot building at 4013 Armory Oaks Drive, just 5 miles south of downtown Nashville, Tennessee in the 100 Oaks area. The school is easily accessible to I-65, and I-440. See a virtual tour of the campus.