Klint Alexander rolled into Laramie a week ago, but he is already aiming high when it comes to his plans for the University of Wyoming College of Law.
Plucked from Vanderbilt University, the top 20 law school where he lectured, the new dean hopes to transform the college into the best law school in the region.
"It would be my goal for this law school to be the best in the Mountain West," he said.
Winning the region is a lofty ambition in a rankings game that relies heavily on acceptance rates, grades, reputations, job placement statistics and entrance exams to determine prestige.
Achieving the goal would mean boosting scores past the University of Colorado Boulder, ranked 40th; the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, ranked 42nd and 34th, respectively; and the University of Denver and the University of New Mexico, both ranked 67th.
Three-quarters of the class admitted to UW in 2014 had B-range undergraduate GPAs and average-to-slightly-above average LSAT scores -- the test required for admissions. And about half of all applicants were accepted, according to the Law School Admissions Council.
Those numbers helped earn the school the 108th spot in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. In the region, the magazine put UW fifth, outranking universities in Montana (No. 113) and Idaho (No. 127), but trailing a handful of highly ranked schools in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
Although the college has a ways to go, Alexander thinks it can be done. He aims to break the top 100 and strives to be the best in the region.
For him, it's not only important to raise the school's general rankings, but also its specialty rankings.
The dean would like to establish the school as a national leader in energy and natural resources law, leveraging the advantages of the state's economy and carving a niche for itself.
"I come from Nashville, but not many students from the east have applied to the college of law. But there are many students in the east who want to go into the energy and national resources sector," he said.
He wants to bolster the reputation of the existing program and also add classes that combine energy and natural resources with trade and investment law. He aims to team with the business school (which already has a JD/MBA program) and graduate programs within the engineering and environmental science programs.
Law and energy has been a contentious issue at the college. When former president Bob Sternberg assembled a task force in 2013 to focus on energy law, the former dean, Steve Easton, resigned.
In his resignation letter, Easton wrote, “It is crucial for the College of Law to continue to offer a comprehensive legal education, not an education that is overly focused on one particular area of law.”
Law students responded in kind, writing an open letter that was published in newspapers across the state, calling for transparency and stating the new focus was "misguided."
Alexander said the school will provide a legal education that focuses on all areas of the law. He argued that all aspects of a legal education can apply to the energy sector.
"CEOs or big energy companies need wills and trusts. They need family and domestic legal counsel. They need business counsel and dispute resolution ... All areas of laws, all of these issues affect every sector of the economy," he said.
Another part of the new dean's plan involves doing a better job highlighting the school's clinical programs to attract more students. The National Jurist gave the programs high marks earlier this year.
Alexander will also look at adding specialty legal master's, or LLM, degrees to the school's academic lineup, as well as certificate programs, both of which would boost revenue for the school.
These goals come at a time when law schools across the country are struggling to attract students.
Applications have fallen for the last several years. The number of students last year hoping to attend law school fell 8 percent, signaling a 37 percent drop since 2010. According to The National Law Journal, it was the smallest group to enter law school since 1974.
Alexander said that it's likely the entering class this year will be smaller than last, but he said it was too early to know exact numbers.
While schools across the country have struggled, the University of Wyoming has maintained a relatively consistent number of students, maintaining over the last five years a class size that has averaged close to 77 students.
A handful of lawyers contacted Wednesday from around Wyoming attributed the statistics to a strong legal market in the state.
About 65 percent, or 46 students, out of 2014's graduates had full-time jobs a year later, according to the American Bar Association. And about 50 percent of the class had full-time jobs that required a law degree.
Alexander said the numbers are a testament to changing times.
"There’s a national concern that going to law school is not worth it. And my answer to that is that a law degree is the most flexible advanced degree you can have in the modern world. You don’t have to just be a lawyer and join a law firm. You can run for office. You can teach. So that value of a law degree pays off, no matter what you decide to do career wise," he said.
Although the legal market has taken a ding, Alexander said that those jobs are coming back. "Firms are hiring again," he said.
While about half of the school's graduates end up working in Wyoming and less than a quarter end up in Colorado, Alexander wants to make it a priority to land law grads jobs in bigger markets.
He said the key to that is building relationships and teaching students that it's never too early to start building a client base.
"If they can get that message out then it doesn’t matter if you’re from Harvard or Yale," he said.