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Making Law School Dreams a Reality

Three-year program in Boise puts legal education within reach of students who want UI’s expertise but can’t pull up roots in the Treasure Valley

Nicole O'Toole wants to be a lawyer, but she doesn't yet know what kind.

As a mother of three young boys — including one with special needs — she's interested in the processes of medical law. As a 33-year-old small-business owner, her entrepreneurial skills could lend themselves toward helping others establish businesses of their own with a business-focused law degree.

Or maybe she'll go a different direction and become an estate planning attorney.

O'Toole is sure of one thing — she is eager to get started.

This fall, O'Toole is one of 60 students who entered their first year of law school at the University of Idaho's College of Law program in Boise. It's the first time students will be able to take their first-year courses in both Boise and Moscow.

Moving from Boise to attend law school wasn’t an option for O’Toole, even though it's a dream she's always wanted to pursue. Her husband, Mike, is an IT manager at Micron Technology. She runs her own business managing an online clothing and jewelry boutique. And the family has found the right fit for their sons — 9-year-old Liam and 5-year-old Landon — as well as the right supportive therapy services that fit the needs of 7-year-old Lucas, who has autism spectrum disorder.

"To be able to do all three years in one place, especially here in Boise, really made the difference for me," she said. "I feel the continuity will enable invaluable relationships with fellow students, professors and potential employers."

Nicole Otoole
Top photo: Nicole O'Toole stands in front of the Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center in Boise with her husband, Mike, and sons Lucas, Landon and Liam. Photos by Mark VanderSys

A 20-Year Vision

The three-year law program in Boise — located in the Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center in the historic Ada County Courthouse — is the culmination of a strategic planning process that began in the late 1990s, said former college Dean Don Burnett, an emeritus professor of law who also served as interim president of UI.

In 1999, then-UI President Bob Hoover formed a blue ribbon committee to study the future of the college and how to meet the legal education needs of the state, under the direction of the Idaho State Board of Education (SBOE).

In 2001, after faculty review of the blue ribbon report, UI hired Lee Dillion to expand the law program's outreach statewide. He started small, establishing an externship program to connect students in their third year with hands-on opportunities in public agencies, prosecutor and public defender offices, and judicial chambers across the state.

Planning continued, and in 2008 UI officials went before the SBOE with a proposal to create a branch program in the Treasure Valley. They had two things in mind.

"One was to impress upon the board and others that the University of Idaho takes seriously its statewide mission in legal education — and this requires a presence in the state capital," Burnett said. "The second was a unique opportunity  to work with the Idaho Supreme Court in establishing the Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center."

The state board initially approved a program allowing students to take their third-year courses in Boise beginning in 2010. In 2014, the program expanded to offer second-year classes, and first-year courses were approved to begin in 2017.

Now the associate dean for Boise programs, Dillion is proud to see the full three-year program in Boise come to fruition.

"To finally see this, after my 16 years, and to get to this point, I can't tell you what that means to us," Dillion said. "If someone says to you, ‘It will take nearly 20 years to develop and implement a plan,' some people would say, 'I'm going to go do something else.' Luckily, we didn't."

Donald Burnett
Don Burnett
Lee Dillion
Lee Dillion

One College. Two Locations.

As legal education continues to evolve, students in Moscow and Boise can expect continued partnerships through face-to-face teaching, as well as distance learning with faculty and the legal community in both cities, College of Law Dean Mark Adams said.

The vision was never to have duplicate law schools in both locations, Burnett said, but to instead have different areas of emphasis and draw upon the complementary strengths of faculty in Moscow and Boise.

Students in Moscow are exposed to many opportunities for interdisciplinary study and concurrent degrees, including programs that specialize in Native American law, natural resources and environmental law.

The Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center, which is also home to the Idaho State Law Library, is located in the heart of the governmental and economic hub of the state, allowing students there to gain exposure to governmental and entrepreneurial studies, as well as intellectual property.

Directly adjacent to the Idaho Statehouse, the Idaho State Bar and the Idaho Supreme Court, Adams said the learning center is a place where students can regularly interact with the lawyers, judges and state lawmakers regularly walking through its halls.

"It's a truly unique setup," Adams said.

That's something that stood out to O'Toole as she was selecting a law program. She enjoys that her fellow students and educators will come from an array of life experiences.

"I like to say I'm an introverted extrovert," she said. "I work a lot from home, but I'm really excited to meet new people and my professors with different backgrounds. I'm excited to make new friendships and connections in this location that I just don't think I would have gotten at another school."

Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez said UI's presence in Boise also helps fulfill another of its statewide missions: ensuring nontraditional students, women and minorities — who are more likely to be place-bound with family or job ties — have an opportunity to go to law school.

"Law school has always posed an obstacle for some people," he said. "It's so much better to have the two options for families to make the decision that's going to be right for them. With all three years now available here in Boise, we're able to see more Latino students be able to achieve those dreams as well.”

As a nontraditional student, O'Toole said UI's statewide connections and its perception in the community helped her make the decision to enroll at UI rather than another private law school.

"I just don't think you can compare with the reputation or history the University of Idaho has in this state," she said. "Not only do I not have to move out of Boise, I can go to a fully accredited law school with no question marks there. It answered our prayers, really." 

Article by Christina Lords, for the University of Idaho

Mark L. Adams
Mark Adams


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