Jacksonville University College of Law wraps up its first year
'It’s critically important to educate people to use the most powerful tool known to humans and that’s a legally trained mind'
Fourteen first-year law students comprising the inaugural class at Jacksonville University’s College of Law recently took their final exams cementing a banner opening year for the school.
JU Law opened for business in August 2022 in Jacksonville’s iconic VyStar Tower located just a short walk from the Duval County Courthouse.
JU Law became the 12th law school in Florida and the first to open in more than 20 years. Furthermore, it’s the first new law school to open in the United States in nearly a decade. The university selected the inaugural class of seven men and seven women from an applicant pool of several hundred candidates.
While JU Law is brand spanking new, Dean Nicholas Allard says it’s been in the works for a while.
“Over 80 years ago when JU was established it was established by a judge,” Allard said. “He contemplated the original idea for a law school here. That was put on the back burner for a long time for a variety of historic reasons.”
Allard says JU President Tim Cost has been planning the law school’s creation for more than 10 years and planned to use space at the VyStar.
“There are so many people at JU who have laid the foundation for this school, from President Cost to all of the faculty and administration,” Allard said.
Allard gives all the credit of a successful first year to his students who he said are not only of the highest quality but faced enormous competition throughout the applicant process.
“We had over 400 applications and we took 20,” Allard said. “We got 15 and one deferred to this coming year. Those kinds of numbers, if we were ranked, would put us at the galactic top of any ranking system.”
One of those students, Marisa Materazzi, an Orange Park native, said she’s lived in Northeast Florida all of her life and to see something like this brought to Jacksonville and to be able to see it grow is truly special.
“Jacksonville needs a good legal community, and we need a law school and I want to help build that foundation, so it was just a no-brainer to come here,” Materazzi said. “It’s my hometown and I have a lot of pride in it so I want to see it succeed, grow, and thrive.”
A Yale Law School graduate, Allard served as the dean of Brooklyn Law School from 2012-18 and was senior counsel at Dentons in Washington, D.C. He said he’d been to Jacksonville many times and admired it.
“I have lifelong friends here including some of my professional colleagues who are Jacksonvillians,” Allard said. “When they heard what President Cost was trying to do, they said, ‘We know a guy from up north who’s just crazy enough to take it.’”
He said the position as dean of a new law school had great appeal because the law and legal education matters.
Allard said that America has had a century of agriculture, a century of industry, and a century of science and discovery. Now he feels we’re in the digital and biomedical age in which the new explorers and pioneers comprise the century of lawyers.
“The law touches everything and all existing rules are stretched to the limit,” Allard said. “It’s critically important to educate people to use the most powerful tool known to humans and that’s a legally trained mind.”
Allard believes starting a new college of law in Jacksonville is a huge competitive advantage.
“The leadership and the people of Jacksonville are fantastic and plausible,” Allard said. “The local bar, the city of Jacksonville loves the law school.”
Allard also said it’s much easier to build a law school from the ground up than retrofitting one, especially when it comes to an academic institution.
“We have the flexibility to take exactly what the judges and the best lawyers in Jacksonville are doing that’s not being taught elsewhere throughout the country and adapt that to being in the forefront,” Allard said. “We may be small, but we can be a beacon.”
Another advantage is support from the local Jacksonville bench and bar, which Allard says is phenomenal.
“We’re not an isolated silo on the banks of the St. John’s River downtown,” Allard said. “We are completely intertwined with the university and with the bench and bar and we get a lot from those institutions. It’s a synergy that sets us apart and gives us a competitive advantage.”
JU law student Alex Wicks moved to Florida at age 10 from New York City but moved to Jacksonville three years ago to be closer to his wife’s family. Wicks says the Jacksonville Bar Association has been a huge help to the students.
“The local bar has been amazing,” Wicks said. “The JBA gave all 14 students free memberships for the year, and they all have a huge monthly lunch where they have a theme, and one month the theme was dedicated to the new law school, and it was so cool to have all of them support us.”
Materazzi agreed and said the local young lawyers chapter has also been inviting.
“They’ve been super welcoming,” Materazzi said. “They all want to see us succeed and we feel their support.”
The new law school has begun the ABA accreditation process and hopes to obtain provisional status by the time the inaugural class is ready to graduate, which is necessary for graduates to take the bar exam in Florida. Allard said that process is well in hand.
“I feel a heavy responsibility to the school, the city, and most importantly our students to get provisional accreditation and full accreditation on the fastest possible timetable,” Allard said. “We’ve already applied for provisional accreditation we have scheduled the earliest possible site visit of the ABA in October and we’re very much on track.”
Allard said his first-year class has been the glue that has held everything together and they are all wonderful people of good character. He said the 14 students have become something akin to a “Marine squad.”
“They are extremely close-knit,” Allard said. “Not only smart, dedicated, hardworking, and impressive, but they are good people and they take care of each other. They notice when someone is having an issue and help. They even do things together and study together.”
Materazzi agreed. She said the first-year students are a “big group of best friends.”
“We’re building this foundation together and it’s brought us super close,” Materazzi said. “I know everything about everybody else. It’s amazing because there are only 14 of us and we’re together all day every day. Going through the worst moments of our lives together and the best moments of our lives together. Putting in the blood, sweat, and tears.”
Wicks said the first-year students are planning activities for the class to do together as a whole this summer.
Allard said the inaugural class are constantly used as ambassadors, helping recruit faculty and new applicants while regularly having visitors sit in their classes.
“They are highly qualified, and they have a lot of options on where they could get their legal education, but they chose us,” Allard said. “They were drawn to coming to a school that they knew they would have a hand in building and that’s not for everyone.”
As the law school looks to year two, Allard feels the second class will be a bit larger with close to 20 students, which he feels is a perfect number. He says the second class will benefit from the first class creating a beachhead into legal studies in Jacksonville.
“The first-year class got off the landing craft and secured the beach, and they will be excellent mentors and advisers and the first class will benefit by being surrogate teachers,” Allard said.
Wicks said he is very much looking forward to welcoming the new class.
“I can’t wait to let them know that I’ve been in your exact shoes and know exactly what it takes,” Wicks said.
Materazzi said she’s looking for better ways to become ambassadors for prospective students in year two.
“I’ve already spoken to the administration about creating a student ambassador program because I believe we should be reaching out to more prospective students,” Materazzi said. “Coming into law school we didn’t have anybody to turn to. It’d be nice to listen to prospective students and hear their experiences.”
Allard explained that from the first day of classes, the law school has woven courses on professionalism, ethics, and professional training into its curriculum. Additionally, it makes each new class take an oath of professionalism at the Duval County Courthouse.
“They’re meeting with cutting-edge members of the Jacksonville Bar every week who help them to understand what it takes to be a lawyer,” Allard said. “You’re going to be ready to be a new lawyer the day you walk out the door.”
As they look to the future, the college has just hired four new faculty members . Allard said they have built the faculty in a strong, sensible, deliberate, and conservative fashion.
Furthermore, the college will move into a new, permanent location in time for the graduation of the first class. Allard said they will announce the new downtown location soon and he’s excited about the progress.
Materazzi said she looks forward to being a member of the law school’s inaugural graduating class.
“It’s unreal, and the fact we just finished our first year we’re just one more step to that goal,” Materazzi said. “It’s kind of setting in just to be able to be the first — not many people get to say that.”
Allard says the students feel a heavy obligation to return the investment the people of Jacksonville have made in the school with interest and they’re well on the way to doing that.
“Our goal is nothing short of when people discover a Jacksonville College of Law graduate, they are filled with admiration for their professionalism, expertise, and their ethics and we’re going to do it!” Allard said.