Time was when Tampa was the largest city in the country without a law school. As of Jan. 15, 2004, that time had passed. That’s when the Stetson University College of Law swung open the doors of its new satellite operation, officially known as the Tampa Law Center and Campus, to accommodate part-time law students.
The three-story, 73,500-square-foot building on Tampa Street is just north of Interstate 275. Topped by an iconic, gargoyled watchtower that replicates the one on the main campus in Gulfport, the center is home to the Second District Court of Appeal on the third floor and a state-of-the-art courtroom, law library and classrooms on the first. Classrooms, law offices and law-related business tenants are planned for the second floor.
What the Tuscan pink, neo Spanish-Mediterranean center creates is a win-win-win scenario for Stetson, Tampa and those looking to earn an after-hours law degree in four years — instead of three.
The Stetson College of Law, based in Gulfport since 1954, has long wanted a presence in downtown Tampa. Such that the private university paid $11.2 million to raze the former Tampa Police Department headquarters, acquire the 7.7-acre (Tampa Heights) site and build the new center. (The Tampa facility is Florida’s first such law school satellite.)
It wanted to attract more Hillsborough County students to its 2-year-old, part-time program that now numbers about 120 students. (Stetson’s full-time enrollment is approximately 700.) It also desired a more up-close-and-personal interaction with Tampa’s movers and shakers, many of whom are litigators. And it saw a rare, synergistic opportunity by housing the Tampa branch of the Florida Second DCA.
“The DCA will be a tremendous resource for us,” points out Jan Majewski, associate dean for the Tampa campus. He cites court proceedings and better access to guest lecturers, (elective course) adjuncts and moot court judges. “We are now convenient to everything,” underscores Majewski.
As for Tampa, Mayor Pam Iorio says it’s an asset on multiple levels.
“From a purely aesthetic standard, it’s beautiful,” assesses Iorio. “But it will be a significant activity center — and extends downtown (north) to Tampa Heights. This is tremendous for Tampa.”
For the community of Tampa Heights, Stetson is already a key catalyst in economic revitalization strategies. And the Tampa campus is likely to house much more than the multi-faceted law center. The Hillsborough County Bar Association plans to build a new headquarters on the property, and there is room — and contingency plans — for several more buildings and a parking garage.
“Stetson’s new campus has stimulated $100 million in new development in the surrounding community, including corporate and private investment,” states Ralph Schuler, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.
As for the students, most of the 120 are working professionals looking to change careers or upgrade credentials. Geographically, approximately one third live in Pinellas County, another third in Hillsborough and the remainder are regional — ranging from Sarasota to east Orlando. Being able to take some — but not all — of their courses in Tampa is a decided convenience for a significant number.
Nancy Besore, 47, could be the prototype for the part-time program. The Safety Harbor resident is an American Government teacher at Riverview High School in south Hillsborough County. A Tampa stop is on her way home. The single, career educator has been in the school system for 18 years. She once considered pursuing a law degree — but didn’t feel properly “prepared.”
“Then when I saw the (Stetson) ad, it kind of jolted me,” she recalls. “I went and picked up the LSAT (materials). It just got me to thinking, ‘For 18 years I’ve had kids going off to med school or law school or whatever. Now it really is my turn.'”
Besore is now half way through the demanding, 88-credit hour curriculum. She’s holding her own and on course for a May ’06 graduation. She avails herself of academic assistance and study-support groups.
“I’m still here, and I’m still in good standing,” she says. “But it’s difficult.” Especially torts. “It’s an absolute morass of material,” she laments.
When she finishes, Besore would like to work in the state attorney’s office. But the final two years loom. Tons of reading. Analytical probing. Time management. Competition. Proving she’s ready for the arena.
“I love it here,” she says emphatically. “And what a charming place to study. And you know what? They want us to succeed.”