As an elected official, Kay Robilio (BA '73, JD '80) knows the importance of appearance. So when the U of M announced plans to move its law school downtown to the elegant U.S. Postal Service Customs House on Front Street, the circuit court judge was, in her words, "absolutely delighted."
The University of Memphis is purchasing the downtown U.S. Postal Service Customs House located on Front Street for its Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
"Architecture makes a huge difference in image," Robilio says, "and that building is an architectural treasure. The standing of the U of M law school will only be enhanced."
With a flooding basement, a flawed heating and cooling system and major crowding problems, the law school has desperately needed a new home for the past decade. When the U of M went looking for one, the perfect place was found in the perfect location: at the Customs House in downtown Memphis. The U of M will begin holding classes as early as 2009 in the stately 120-year-old building, where some say the ghosts of history walk the halls.
No split decision
"This is a great day for Memphis and the students who will benefit from this exciting new project now and in the future," says U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who helped coordinate the deal. "The U of M School of Law is one of the finest law schools in the Mid-South, and its graduates have achieved outstanding bar exam success rates."
University President Shirley Raines says the move downtown expands the school's horizons.
"We see our campus as the whole city of Memphis and the region because we're in Collierville, we're in Millington, we're on the main campus and now we will be downtown on the Mississippi River," she says.
With a long history in law and a close proximity to courthouses and law offices, the Customs House does make for an ideal location for the law school, says Richard Glassman (BS '69, JD '72), senior partner at Glassman, Edwards, Wade and Wyatt PC and past president of the University's alumni association.
"The move will be a great thing for the entire University. It will give the University a showplace and a downtown presence that rivals any university in the United States," Glassman says.
The building, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, boasts four courtrooms, the original brass window cages and hardwood paneling, and magnificent architecture in its 140,000 square feet — a vast improvement over the 59,000-square-foot building in which the law school now resides.
"Anyone who visits will have to be impressed," Glassman says.
From 1885, when the building opened, until 1963, the facility served as the federal courthouse and was the site of every major federal case in Memphis.
Now, says School of Law Dean James R. Smoot, the courtrooms will be put to use by the nationally recognized Moot Court team and for Mock Trial so that students get "not just theory but get to try their skills out in the proper setting."
Smoot hopes to get real courts to sit there as well so that students can easily observe the action. The Federal Tennessee Appeals Court already sits at the current law building, and Smoot says it would be good to be able to provide a better location for them.
"The building has a history that reverberates well with the use it will now be put to," he says.
Top of the class
Tentative plans call for classes to begin at the downtown location in 2009 after renovations are made to the ornate 120-year-old facility.
With its 98.5 percent job placement rate nine months after graduation and top bar exam scores, the U of M School of Law is already top of the line educationally, says Smoot.
"We know we have the best law school in the state, but we need to put the program in a building that is appropriate," he says. "The location gives us intellectual resources such as access to speakers."
The law faculty includes some 25 adjunct professors, many of whom work downtown as judges and lawyers. The move will make it easier to attract and retain professionals who have specialized knowledge both to teach courses and as guest speakers.
The building's location will give students easy access to job and intern possibilities as well. Third-year law students are encouraged to intern or clerk to develop their skills and observe the skills of others. Though it can be hard for students to do that now with the law school located on the main campus, the downtown location will increase these opportunities.
"In law, being isolated is not a good thing," says Smoot. "It's better to be where the action is."
Hear ye, hear ye
The city of Memphis and downtown businesses are also excited about the law school's move — it means more than 500 new people downtown eating, working and, perhaps, living.
Benny Lendermon (BSCE '75, MS '79), president of the Riverfront Development Corporation, says the move fits in perfectly with his group's plan to connect the busy downtown area with the riverfront. He says the corporation "has been trying for years to get that building reutilized for something more beneficial to the community."
"We think it's important because it returns the building to a grander use for the public," Lendermon says. "It will be the centerpiece of the area that we are working hard to improve."
Lendermon adds that the magnificence of the building will help the University recruit more people from out of town. "That's how you bring talent in," he notes.
Making the case
Funding for the expected $42 million cost of renovating the building is anticipated to come from the state while the University will raise the $5.3 million acquisition cost.
"Our next step is to raise the private dollars from the community for the building," Dr. Raines says.
In addition, the law school wants to take the opportunity to add to its endowment fund, the smallest in Tennessee, Smoot says.
"Tennessee doesn't have enough money to do what it needs to do, so we have to start acting like a private school and raise our own money through private donations," he says. The goal is to raise $12 million to cover the acquisition costs and to add to the endowment fund.
With an already solid academic base, the law school's move downtown is one that should not be measured in miles, but rather light years.