Rick Bales says he’s in the enviable position of leading a personalized legal education program at a niche institution in a shrunken law student market. Bales is the dean of Ohio Northern University College of Law, where, he said, faculty and staff know every member of the entering class, which this academic year, like the last, won’t exceed 80.
“This kind of small student community and a location where there are few outside distractions – hey, we’re in the middle of mostly farmland – these factors alone mean that we’re very much the right fit for some and definitely not for all,” he said.
The small stage that is ONU Law is also the perfect laboratory for Bales to test innovative ways of teaching employment and labor law – his area of expertise along with employment discrimination, employment arbitration and workplace alternative dispute resolution, about which he has lectured internationally.
A graduate of Trinity University, Bales received his J.D. from Cornell. He seems to have found his practice-area passion early on, litigating employment cases for Baker & Botts, a Houston-based firm, and Baker & Hostetler, which is based in Cleveland. His academic career includes teaching at the University of Montana Law School, Southern Methodist University Law Schools and the University of Houston Law School. He joined the faculty of Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law in 1998, becoming director of the Advocacy Center and associate dean of faculty development.
LAWDRAGON: What drew you into legal academia?
RICK BALES: While I was in law school, many of the courses I most enjoyed were the seminar courses that were graded with a term paper rather than a final exam. I enjoyed the process of writing a term paper, since it took hard work, but also creativity and problem solving. I noticed that writing academic legal articles – basically long term papers – seemed to be a professor’s path to success. That got me thinking that perhaps I should consider becoming a professor.
After I graduated and started practicing law, I had an opportunity to teach an employment discrimination course as an adjunct professor. I loved the classroom experience – being with students, picking their brains. At the same time I had this classic kind of eureka moment when I was working with students and realized that, just as I was capable of writing an academic article when I was in law school, so were they.
From that point on I knew that I belonged back in law school, but in a collaborative teaching environment in which I could partner with students doing research. In fact, if you look at what I have published over the years, much of it is co-authored and the co-authors are students.
LD: What do you wish you had known before you got here a year ago?
RB: Strange as it may sound, I wish I had known that what the people here told me about the school wasn’t hype. I needed to be here a while to figure out that everything they said is true: ONU Law students really do have a strong sense of community; they do socialize together – a lot. They go to each other’s homes for the holidays. They leave here with lifelong friends.
I also wish that I deeply understood, as I do now, that we’re not for everyone and that the students for whom we are the right choice will find us to be a perfect fit, the place they needed to come for a personalized education at a low cost that means low debt and a better ability to pursue the career they want.
Someone who grew up in a small- or medium-size town, for example, and loves that style of life and community spirit, we’re the right fit. Someone who aspires to bright lights, big city, a large firm – probably not a good fit.
It’s so nice to have this kind of distinctive niche in the current legal education market; I take enormous pride in presenting us to prospective students.
LD: What lessons have you learned in your inaugural year?
RB: Lesson 1 – It’s physically impossible to do everything I want to do; there are simply not enough hours in the day. But trying to do it all is an awful lot of fun. Lesson 2 – How much I miss being in the classroom. As dean I’m often on the road, which is enjoyable in its own way since everyone I meet, every alum, has a story to tell. And the stories are fascinating. But there is nothing like interacting with students.
Let me give you an example. On the first day of the class that I did teach I gave students a syllabus I knew they would hate – hundreds of pages of readings, long assignments with short deadlines. They were universally shocked. Here’s the thing, though: I did it intentionally. I was forcing them to form a union, to recognize how much more power they have when they act collectively.
And we didn’t stop with the syllabus and their outrage. I eventually set them up with the National Labor Relations Board so that they had to fill out the paperwork to form a union, hold elections, the works. The result is that here is one group of would-be lawyers who understand what labor unions and labor and employment law are about because they engaged in it themselves. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see students so involved in their own learning and to watch as they “get it.”
LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?
RB: ONU Law is a small school in rural Ohio that delivers an exceptionally large return on investment. The low tuition – now $24,800 — and cost of living significantly reduces student debt burden and enhances the ability of graduates to pursue their career of choice. They can actually afford to work in a public service law job and pay back their loans.
Notwithstanding the low price tag, we provide high-quality legal education. There were 77 students in our entering class last year. The small class size means students get individualized attention from faculty, and that custom-made legal education is reflected in student outcomes.
We know every student by name; we know all about them. And we care. That means we’re not content to let them leave with a law degree and be out alone on their own.
Our bar-pass rate is consistently strong in Ohio: 90 percent in July 2013 and 100 percent in February 2013. We rank first in Ohio for J.D.-required job placement.
Now more than 60 percent of ONU Law students come from outside Ohio, often returning to their home states to take the bar and practice law. We haven’t consistently done as well on bar-passage in all those states. But again, our small size means that we can provide a lot more academic support than many other schools to address these issues.
We have, for example, two full-time people who focus half their energy on helping students succeed in law school and master all the necessary skills, who support students’ individual learning needs and styles. The other half of their time and energy is focused on ensuring that students pass whatever bar exams they want to take.
These people will work with students one-on-one if necessary. They know the individual students so well that they understand who needs help with essay writing, who needs a telephone call to ensure that they are awake and studying and managing their time effectively. Some students stay on campus to study for the bar they’re taking in another state.
This is about as personal and personalized an approach to legal education as any school can offer.
LD: What are your biggest challenges and how are you meeting them?
RB: The single greatest challenge I have as dean is getting the word out to prospective students outside our geographic region that ONU Law is a terrific value proposition. We have a very strong “yield rate” for applicants — prospective students who learn about us and come to visit are very likely to enroll. But getting the message out to those who have never heard of us can be challenging. We are addressing this challenge by revamping our website and establishing more of a social media presence.
My other challenge involves our alumni. Our school hasn’t made it a priority in 20 years to maintain strong contact with its alumni base. These people are incredibly loyal to their classes; they were loyal to the local community while they were here. They have a lot to contribute to the school – and I don’t mean money. They are strong contributors in terms of job referrals.
I didn’t realize how de-emphasized this contact has been. We have a lot of catching up. I’m determined to reach out to some 3,000 alumni – partly via the web, email, phone calls and me getting out to meet personally with alumni in areas where they are concentrated.
LD: How did your perspective on legal education and on ONU Law change when you moved from faculty member to dean?
RB: I gained a better appreciation for all the market forces that affect law schools as, with fewer students applying, so many schools scramble for a piece of a smaller pie. The cost of tuition, for example: Faculty members probably don’t know what tuition is at their own schools, or how much books cost. As dean I’m more sensitive to the financial demands on students and to our responsibility in keeping our costs to students down and in encouraging them to keep their own costs down.
For example, the reality of the government’s student loan program is that students can actually take out larger loans than they need. ONU is in a part of Ohio where our students can be a little more frugal in terms of living expenses. They need not take the full amount of the loan being offered, which means they’ll be acting to keep their debt low and that will open more career opportunities for them.
We speak to students about this when they’re admitted. We now have admissions, with the assistance of the financial aid office, putting together a counseling plan or something like it so that students better understand what their living expenses can and will be.
LD: Are you seeing any trends in the types of jobs your graduates take?
RB: Our students are increasingly likely to take government jobs, jobs located all over the U.S., and public-interest jobs. Those public-interest jobs often are higher paying than they were in the past, and they are more likely to be located internationally. More than 5,000 alumni are representing ONU Law across the country and can be found holding executive offices in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, sitting on federal and state courts, and are partners at small, medium and large law firms. We have alumni in all 50 states and abroad who offer an incredible network for our recent graduates.
LD: What do you do outside the law school when you’re not being dean?
RB: I like to stay physically active; so you’ll find me most mornings at the campus gym. I hike, especially in the mountains, any chance I get. I love to travel, especially to places that most tourists avoid. While I’m traveling I like to dare the locals to find me a food so spicy or weird that I won’t eat it. It’s a dare I win every time.
Contact Margot Slade at (646) 722-2623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.