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University of South Dakota School of Law
Published April 2010, last updated June 2010
Vermillion, South Dakota
The University of South Dakota School of Law was founded in 1901 and has been ABA-accredited since 1923. It is located in Vermillion, a small town in the southeast corner of the state, and is the only law school in South Dakota.
Admissions and Tuition
For the class entering in 2009, the University of South Dakota School of Law accepted 202 out of 382 applicants, a 52.9% acceptance rate. It also accepted 15 students through alternate admissions processes such as the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians and Alaska Natives (PLSI)*. Of the total 217 accepted students, 79 enrolled, giving the school a 36.4% yield rate.
[The PLSI is a two-month program that seeks to prepare Native American students for law school by simulating the academic rigors of the first year of law school. It is free of cost to those students who are accepted into the program. Although PLSI is intended as a preparatory program rather than an alternative admissions program, some schools, including the University of South Dakota, do use it an an alternative admissions option. A similar program at USD that is open to students of all ethnicities is the Law Screening Program, during which students take two courses over a six week period and are admitted or denied based on their performance on the final exams.]
The USD School of Law offers an accelerated admissions program that allows students to begin law school before finishing their undergraduate work. A student must have completed three-fourths of his/her undergraduate degree in order to be eligible, and s/he must provide a plan showing how they will finish the undergraduate degree during law school. Completion of the undergraduate degree is a requirement of graduation.
As a public school, USD charges lower tuition to South Dakota residents than to out-of-state students. For the 2009-2010 academic year, in-state tuition was $10,695, while out-of-state tuition was $20,575. Due to a tuition reciprocity agreement with the neighboring state of Minnesota, Minnesota residents pay a lower rate than other out-of-state students; in 2009-2010, this rate was $16,467. Out-of-state students should note that South Dakota does not allow people from other states to gain South Dakota residency if they are residing in South Dakota primarily for the purpose of attending school, so an out-of-state resident will be paying the out-of-state rate for all three years.
During the first semester of 1L, students take three credits each of Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, and a class called Fundamental Legal Skills that focuses on legal research and writing. They also take two credits each of Contracts, Property, and Torts. During the second semester, they take three credits each of Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, and Torts, as well as two credits each of Property and Fundamental Legal Skills. After 1L, students have only five required courses: Evidence, Constitutional Law, Legal Profession, one of five practical skills courses, and one of three code courses (Commercial Law, Federal Income Tax, and Secured Transactions). There is also an upper-level writing requirement, which, unlike at some other schools, cannot be fulfilled by participation in a journal; students must write the paper as part of a course. The school generally has a low 1L attrition rate: the 1L attrition rate was 4.5% for the class entering in 2007 and 0% for the class entering in 2008.
USD School of Law offers several joint degrees in conjunction with other schools in the university. Students may apply to both programs at the same time and begin the joint degree immediately upon matriculation, or they may apply during the first year of law school and begin the joint degree during the second year. By double-counting a certain number of credits, students are able to graduate in three years. USD's joint degree programs are unusual in that students who do not complete their non-law degrees in three years may still earn their law degrees, although they will lose credit for some of the non-law classes they counted towards the J.D. Currently, the J.D. can be earned jointly with an M.B.A., a Master of Professional Accountancy, an M.S. in Administrative Studies, and an M.A. in Education Administration, English, Political Science, History, Public Administration, or Psychology. Additionally, there is a joint degree program with Vermont Law School that allows students to earn a Master of Studies in Environmental Law alongside the J.D.
Students at USD can take advantage of several academic programs and centers. One of these is the American Indian Law Program. Native Americans comprise 10% of South Dakota's population, and 20% of the state's land belongs to reservations. As of the 2000 census, South Dakota was also home to four of the nation's five poorest counties, as measured by per capita income; all four counties are populated almost exclusively by Native Americans. Because the state has such a strong Native American heritage and because the challenges faced by the Native American population are so great, American Indian Law is of special interest to the University of South Dakota. Students in the program take courses such as Federal Indian Law, Indian Criminal Jurisdiction, Indian Civil Jurisdiction, Indian Gaming and Economic Development, Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Native American Natural Resources Law. Students may also participate in the Elderlaw Forum, which conducts legal outreach to people 55 and older, the Public Interest Network, which awards grants to students working on public interest projects, the Access to Justice low-income legal clinic, and the Innocence Project of South Dakota. The school offers two journals: the South Dakota Law Review and the Sustainable Development Law Journal.
USD has a very small part-time program, which the school calls a flex-time program. This program is limited to a few students each year and allows students to complete the J.D. curriculum in five years rather than three.
Employment Prospects and Bar Passage
Most USD graduates take the South Dakota bar. The class of 2008 produced 77 first-time takers. According to data collected by the ABA, only 76% of these graduates reported whether they had passed the bar; however, those who did report had a 94.9% pass rate, slightly lower than the state's average of 95.2%. The school itself reports that USD graduates had a 95% pass rate on the 2008 bar examinations, a 100% pass rate for the February 2009 examination, and a 96% pass rate for the July 2009 examination. The Internet Legal Research Group (ILRG) reports an 83.6% pass rate for the 2009 administrations. One possible explanation for this discrepancy might be that the school's own data includes re-takers (the ILRG and ABA report only on first-time takers) and re-takers from USD have a higher passage rate than first-time takers – although this would be unusual, since in most states re-takers have a significantly lower passage rate.
The school reported employment for 91.8% of the 86 students graduating in 2008. Of the employed students, 22% were employed by the government, 14% in business and industry, 32% in law firms, 18% in clerkships, 8% in public interest, and 4% in academia. 64% of the employed alumni were employed in the state of South Dakota; overall, graduates were employed in 13 states.
For the class graduating in 2008, the median private sector starting salary was $49,000, while the median public sector salary was $42,422. It is important to remember that, given the cost of living in the area (discussed below), these are not particularly low salaries.
Quality of Life
The University of South Dakota is located in Vermillion, which lies in southeast South Dakota, just north of the Missouri River. Vermillion is a tiny town, clearly bounded by two major roadways and otherwise surrounded for miles by farmland. It is home to around 10,000 people. The campus is only a few blocks from the downtown area, and end-to-end the town is barely three miles long, so living without a car would be very feasible; there is a Wal-Mart one mile away from the law school. However, because of Vermillion's rural location and lack of public transit, traveling outside the area would be difficult without a car. The closest cities are Sioux City, 40 miles southeast, Sioux Falls, 60 miles north, Omaha, 142 miles south, and Minneapolis, 300 miles northeast. The closest commercial airport is Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, which primarily operates flights to Minneapolis. Downtown Vermillion, which is south of campus, is very small and offers only a few dining and shopping options. These offerings, though sparse, are showcased beautifully at downtownvermillion.com.
Vermillion is a fairly low-income area. As of the 2000 census, the median household income was $24,095 and the median family income was $40,109; 26.2% of individuals and 16.2% of families were below the poverty line. The prospective law student, however, will be pleased to know that the area also has a very low cost of living. The monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment within walking distance of USD hovers around $500; a 3-bedroom house can easily be found for $800-$900 per month, and for students looking for the lowest possible housing cost, 3-bedroom mobile homes one mile from campus start at $500 per month. South Dakota's climate features distinct seasons: the average temperature in July and August is in the mid-70s, with highs in the 80s, while in January the average temperature falls to 19 degrees, with an average low temperature of 8 degrees. (The harsh winter weather is another reason students might be glad to own cars.)
Due to its isolated location and regionally limited employment prospects, the University of South Dakota School of Law might be an unwise choice for someone with no ties to the area. On the other hand, as the only law school in South Dakota, it offers a convenient and affordable option to prospective law students who already call South Dakota home and wish to remain there. Detailed employment data for the classes graduating in 2008 and 2009 is hard to find, so students considering the university would do well to visit and speak with staff and current students to get an accurate picture of the job prospects for a USD graduate.
The University of South Dakota School of Law
Tuition: $10,695 for SD residents; $16,467 for MN residents; $20,575 for all other out-of-state students
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