University of Memphis Magazine
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Fall 09 Features



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A firm foundation

With new facilities that rank among the grandest in the nation, the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law is poised for even greater heights.

by Sara Hoover

PHOTOGRAPHY BY LINDSEY LISSAU

When you first walk into the historic lobby of what once was the U.S. Postal Service Customs House, there are many nods to the earlier glory housed here: brass plates where gas lanterns were, original Pony Express emblems and glass etchings mirroring the P.O. boxes that used to be there. Even the catwalk and peepholes from the postal inspector days remain — but don’t let that fool you: the building and the University of Memphis’ School of Law are moving in new directions.

During Dean Donald Polden’s tenure from 1993 to 2003, he started scouting downtown for a new law school location, and 1 North Front Street became the leading candidate. Poised to officially open its doors in January, it will become the new home of the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

“We are replacing our current location on our beautifully landscaped main campus with a magnificent building downtown that is steeped in history. It’s exceeding the expectations that I had,” says the law school’s new dean, Kevin Smith, of the move.

Founded in 1962 by University President Cecil C. Humphreys, the law school is leaving the only home it’s ever known. Classes start in January in the stately 130-year-old building. Erected in 1878, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It boasts four courtrooms, 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 school resided on the main U of M campus.

“The (old building) wasn’t anything like the showplace that this is going to be,” says Cecil C. Humphreys Jr. (JD ’81). “This building couldn’t be a more perfect, impressive space for the law school.”

Humphreys, an attorney with Glankler Brown, is excited about the relocation on a professional but also personal level. “I think my father would be real pleased. He worked very hard to get the law school in Memphis. It was a hard fought battle against the legislature and with the University of Tennessee. So, it meant a lot to him personally because of the fight he had to go through to get it. I think he would have loved to have seen it in this beautiful building.”

Current students are also looking forward to the new site, which, from the building’s opening in 1885 until 1963, served as the federal courthouse.

“I like the new building because it distinguishes the law school from the undergraduate students,” says third-year law student James Jones Jr. (BA ’07). “It seems more prestigious. The law school got lost in the undergraduate campus. We’ll be able to have our own recognition and notoriety.”

“The size of the old building was probably appropriate when it started, but as it’s grown as a law school, we need more room,” adds Stephanie Bada, second-year law student. “It’s a better example of where we are as a school now.”

To facilitate the move, the University garnered $12 million in private support — $6 million for building acquisition and the other half endowed for student scholarships, faculty professorships and program support. The state provided an additional $42 million for the work.

A new building and a new dean aren’t the only makeovers the law school is seeing this academic year.

After serving as the associate dean for Academic Affairs for 20 years, Barbara Kritchevsky was recently named the school’s first director of advocacy. She will remain faculty adviser to the nationally recognized Moot Court Board. New courses and a Certificate of Advocacy are being designed. The position was created to build on existing strengths.

“We’ve had a lot of success in Moot Court competitions,” says Kritchevsky. “We figured if we’ve done that well without formally devoting resources to the program, that if we actually devote resources to the program, hopefully we’ll do even better. It’s a way to get good exposure for our students and program.”

Kritchevsky hopes to increase the quality of the competitions, strengthen alumni involvement and expand the travel funds and number of competitions.

Advocacy also gives the students better shots at landing jobs.

“Employers want to hire graduates who have the skills to hit the ground running, and can practice without a lot of training.”

The new location will allow the teams to have more practice space and resources, including better audio and visual equipment, which is becoming very important in real-life trials.

The Federal Tennessee Appeals Court already sits at the campus law building, and the hope is the court will do the same at the new location so students can easily observe.

The move was also initiated to strengthen the school’s ties with alumni and the legal community.

“There’s going to be an enormous sense of pride that our law school quite likely will be the most beautiful law school in the country,” says Allie Prescott III (BA ’69, JD ’72), president of Allie Prescott & Partners and senior adviser at Waddell & Associates. “It’s in the middle of the center of justice; it’s near the courts, it’s near most of the law firms. There’s going to be a great opportunity for interaction between the legal community, the Memphis & Shelby County Bar and our law school. We hope faculty will interact with the law firms and be expert witnesses. We certainly hope that our students will have opportunities for internships and clerkships.”

Downtown businesses and the city are also excited about the School of Law’s move — it means more than 500 additional people downtown.

 Besides a new location, the law school is also working to change its student body as well. To increase diversity, the U of M runs the Tennessee Institute for Pre-Law, the state’s only access and diversity summer law program.

“The program allows students who do not meet the medians in LSAT and GPA for law school to come to a five-week summer program and try to prove themselves,” says Yolanda Ingram, assistant dean for Student Affairs and director of the Institute. “It’s admission by performance, that in spite of your LSAT score, you can still do the work. If you do well in the program, then you’re guaranteed a seat in the first-year class.”

The diversity criteria covers racial and ethnic, first-generation college and socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds.

According to Ingram, the number of minority students in the first-year class would be significantly lower without the Institute. The law school is 14 percent minority overall for the current and previous academic year.

Another diversity initiative is the law school’s involvement with the Memphis Bar Association’s summer internship program, whose goal is to introduce minority high school students to the practice of law and to encourage a law career.

The renovations to the building were done as a joint venture by Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects and Fleming/Associates/Architects. The makeovers were especially challenging since the building was constructed in four sections: the first in 1878, the second portion in 1903 and the two wings in the 1930s. So, finding continuity throughout was not easy. The 1903 building was actually demolished and contains the only new construction area.

“We wanted to keep a lot of the historic nature,” says Veronica Tansey, Fleming’s director of interior design. “We wanted to keep all these old moldings and make things as true to the original design as possible. We wanted things that were going to be old to be old and new to be new.”

In order to meet seismic requirements, a 12-inch-thick, concrete-reinforced wall had to be integrated into the existing 1800s building. There was a full-time archaeologist at the site during digging in case anything of significance was found.

The main lobby remains unchanged other than safety requirements.

“No matter where you walk in this building, I don’t think you can escape the historic aspect,” says Lisa Namie, partner at Fleming. “It’s just pervasive without seeing granite, marble, crown molding or old woodwork.”

Those features were what drove the design.

“I wanted to let the architecture speak for itself, so everything is understated,” says Tansey. “You’re not drawn to a desk, you’re going to be drawn to a gorgeous, historic arched window. Instead of the patterned carpet, you’re going to see a large, 12-foot solid mahogany door.”

The fourth floor, which was originally an attic, was converted into student study areas on the wings. The gutted 1903 portion was made into a contemporary, updated reading room with glass on three sides and a sloped glass ceiling for magnificent views of the Mississippi River. It will be used for receptions and formal functions.

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