Nevada’s only law school celebrated its 20th anniversary with a Saturday night gala at the Bellagio featuring former Vice President Joe Biden.
In 1998, the then-new William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV drew interest from only 463 applicants. The first class of 142 students worked out of the old Paradise Elementary School on Tropicana Avenue, across the street from the main campus.
Fast forward to May 2018, and a total of 2,385 students have earned a Juris Doctor degree from the institution – which has been situated on campus since 2002 and has grown its physical footprint considerably.
In today’s political climate, the court system has been under attack, Biden told the more than 900 attendees at the law school’s 20th anniversary gala.
“I believe we’re seeing a direct assault on the very political institutions that allow us to maintain this vibrant democracy,” he said, calling lawyers the guardians of the system.
Biden also lauded the school’s commitment to raise money for scholarships, which was one of the primary purposes of the event. Without a scholarship, Biden said, he never would have been able to attend Syracuse University law school.
“It had a profound impact on my life, it changed my life,” he said. “You’re going to change the lives of an awful lot of young women and young men who are hopefully going to want to contribute to their community right here in Las Vegas and Nevada.”
Prior to welcoming its first scholars in fall 1998, Nevada was one of only two states, along with Alaska, without a law school, according to a history of the law school compiled by UNLV.
Despite multiple studies urging a law school, the idea didn’t get off the ground until late 1996 when Boyd Gaming Chairman Bill Boyd pledged the initial $5 million toward the project. Now, Boyd law school graduates reach far and wide across the globe, including one graduate in Chile and one in Spain, according to alumni statistics. The vast majority of the graduates, however, stay in Nevada, with 1,804 still in the state.
After the UNR School of Medicine opened in 1969, the state hired an outside agent to commission a feasibility study for a law school in Nevada, according to UNLV.
No action was taken on that report, or two others – one from 1980, the other 1990 — that drew the same conclusion.
In 1995, the Nevada Legislature approved a $500,000 appropriation for the planning of the law school. The timing coincided with UNLV’s hiring of its seventh and first female president, Carol Harter.
“I was so excited about the opportunities to build a great university in Las Vegas,” Harter said in an oral history of the law school published by UNLV. “Here you had this major energetic city in the West that at the time was a good teaching institution, but beyond some scholars who had done some research, it hadn’t developed the kind of powerhouse programs that a university often has. And that involves both a law school and a medical school — there’s just no question that all the great universities have those.”
By 1997, the Legislature approved funding for the school and then-Gov. Bob Miller signed the bill into law, which officially created the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.
After a tight timeline of 16 months, the school opened to 142 students in August 1998 inside the former Paradise Elementary School, which had only wrapped up with its young scholars in mid-June.
“Starting at Paradise Elementary didn’t bother me at all. I actually drove by and got a kick out of the fact that there was still playground equipment at the school site, really until just before school started,” Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said in the UNLV oral history of the school. Frierson, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UNR, was part of the inaugural class at Boyd. “I thought they wouldn’t remove it and that it would be a funny stress reliever for us.”
Keeping up with the times
Becky Harris had one law degree under her belt when she decided to take part in a brand-new LL.M — Latin Legum Magister, or Master of Law in English — program at Boyd. Launched in 2015, the specialty program in gaming law and regulation is billed as a one-of-a-kind offering.
At the time, Harris had just wrapped the 2015 Legislative session where the Republican state senator served as the vice chair of the judiciary committee. A practicing attorney, she had a law background, but found she lacked the depth of knowledge she desired when gaming bills came through the committee.
“I instantly knew I wanted to be a part of it,” she saidof the announcement of the new program.
She was part of the inaugural class, which started in August 2015 and completed the 24-credit program about 16 months later.
In the 2017 Legislature, Harris was still a member of the judiciary committee, and the difference was night and day for her, saying what she had learned at Boyd proved to be “invaluable” and allowed her to ask more nuanced questions of measures relating to gaming.
It’s likely her new academic credential also helped her make history as the first female chairwoman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, a spot she was appointed to by Gov. Brian Sandoval after the 2017 session.
“I think it’s a commitment to advanced education, I think that it was a much-needed degree program in this state,” she said. “I think that the community is going to reap the benefits of this investment for decades.”
Biden on Bush
At the start of his speech, former Vice President Joe Biden paid tribute to former President George H. W. Bush, who died Friday at age 94. As a senator, Biden said he worked with eight presidents in his time, but none had “more class or greater sense of decency,” than Bush.
Biden spoke about a trip to Houston after his son’s death. Bush had been out of a stint in a hospital himself for less than a day, but insisted on going to Biden’s hotel room to welcome him to Houston and give him his condolence’s on the loss of his son.
“That’s the kind of man he was, a man of enormous integrity and never, never, never made it about him. It was always about somebody else,” Biden said.