University of Wyoming officials visited the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee to make a last-minute request for $12 million to fund a $22 million renovation and expansion of the university’s College of Law on the eve of college’s 100th anniversary.
The project had not made it into UW’s formal budget request in mid-2019 which was vetted by the State Construction Department and Gov. Mark Gordon’s office before going to the Legislature in December.
“We were designing the facility and didn’t know the cost of the facility over the summer,” College of Law Dean Klint Alexander told JAC on Friday afternoon. “We did not want to come before you when we didn’t know what the cost was going to be, and that process played out between May and August 2019.”
The board of trustees approved the project’s exterior design in September after private fundraising began in November 2018. Since that time, Alexander said that $5 million has been pledged and that another $1 million is likely to be raised by a planned construction date of October 2020.
“We did that on our own because we thought we ought to communicate the importance of this issue to the Wyoming bar, the legal community, and we also wanted to prove to you that we were working hard to raise money ourselves,” Alexander said. “We have verbal commitments that go beyond $5 (million) … . Some of our pledges are looking to the state to see what the state will do.”
The project would add about 19,000 square feet and renovate about 23,000 square feet of existing space.
If the Legislature approves the request during the upcoming 2021-2022 budget session, which begins Feb. 10, UW Trustee John McKinley said his board is likely to approve funding for the rest of the project.
If the project is delayed, McKinley said the cost of the project will increase by $1.7 million-$2 million each year.
Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, co-chairs JAC and said he’ll ask his committee to support the $12 million appropriation. Nicholas received his law degree from UW in 1985.
The College of Law is planning a major celebration of its centennial for September 2020, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is expected to visit. The Wyoming State Bar has also coordinated to have its annual conference hosted in Laramie around the same time.
The main purpose of the renovation is to bring the college’s various clinics into the actual College of Law building.
While the college’s Defender Aid Clinic is housed in the college’s main building, most are housed in the UniWyo Federal Credit Union.
“The annex space occupied by many of the clinics is inadequate and not conducive to meeting and interviewing clients,” American Bar Association representatives said when they visit the law school in 2013. The ABA, the college’s accrediting agency, is set to make its next visit in 2021.
The law school has a number of clinics that provide the state with $3.5 million of free legal services each year, and Alexander said he’d like to increase that number to $5 million — something he said would be possible with better facilities.
“Like a residency training in medical school, our students actually engage in the practice of law, representing clients on the ground in Wyoming across 23 counties,” Alexander said.
He said the state is unusual in its reliance on UW’s law school for free legal services, but that established reliance is becoming fortuitous.
“We’re one of the few law schools in the record that can go on record with a clinic guarantee, and that’s a big selling point for our students,” Alexander said. “Due to that limited infrastructure (in the credit union building), it’s a struggle to run our clinics in a way that protects confidentiality and prevents conflicts of interest and protects files and other materials that come our way.”
After the renovation, the clients entering the building would have an entrance separate from the normal classroom space.
If construction began in October, Alexander said the project “could be done ambitiously in a year” but might take up to 18 months.
The College of Law was built in 1977. In 1993-1995, it was renovated to add a library. In 2007-2009, it was renovated again to improve its courtroom space.