Inaugural dean prepares for UNT law school’s first class

Inaugural dean prepares for UNT law school’s first class

William Darnell // Editor-in-chief

Up on the fifth floor, past the freshly painted hallways and high above the sparkling park on Main Street in downtown Dallas, Royal Furgeson works. He’s in early. He leaves late. There are no students yet, no classrooms, no curriculum. Just a vision for the UNT Dallas College of Law, and as its founding dean, he is its advocate in chief.

Judge Furgeson believes in this vision — as he does most things — wholeheartedly. Why else would he leave the stability of a lifetime appointment to the federal bench for the uncertainty of starting a new law school from scratch?  Why else would he be capping off a distinguished legal career with the daunting challenge of raising funds for a fledgling law school in a state that already has nine of them?

These answers come in genial bursts from a gregarious man who has devoted his working life to bringing others to his point of view. Unlike many federal judges who spend their prolonged terms in office isolating themselves from lawyers and litigants, Furgeson has never met a stranger and draws others to him with his larger-than-life, Big Tex persona.

Between morning meetings, he scours the hard drive of his twin-monitored computer for the updated file of his 20-page speech—the one he’s been giving to potential donors and students since May, when he resigned his federal judgeship to become the law school’s inaugural dean.

It doesn’t take long—two paragraphs into the speech—for Furgeson to address the real meaty issues facing the school: Why do we need a new law school, what with rising tuition costs, declining enrollment and a stagnant job market? Furgeson ends that paragraph with ‘Why? Why? Why?” and that is where the answers begin—this law school will be different, something he proclaims again and again in the more than 6,000 words of his speech.

The speech doesn’t address the question of whether Texas A&M, with its purchase in July of Texas Wesleyan’s law school, has usurped UNT’s becoming the first public law school in North Texas.

For now, he and his newly minted staff are focusing on hiring, recruiting and fundraising for what was supposed to be North Texas’ first public law school, which is set to open in August.

Furgeson believes he is the man for the job and is ready to take on the momentous task in front of him. The key to understanding why him and why now is deeply rooted in his 40-year legal career.

Birth of a Lawyer

Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor William Royal Furgeson Jr. was born in Lubbock, the son of a county clerk. Royal, as he and his father were known, always had a respect and admiration for lawyers. His father’s work meant they were constantly around, that and his deep affection for Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” ensured that law remained a possibility for his future.

“You stood up for the little guy or people who didn’t have an advocate,” Furgeson said.

Furgeson remained in Lubbock through the completion of his bachelor’s in English literature from Texas Tech. Faulkner, the basketball team—where he sat at the end of the bench—and Army ROTC kept him busy.

Furgeson left Lubbock for UT law school—honors and law review—and the big city of Austin. Upon graduation in 1964, like many of the men of his generation, he left for Vietnam for two years. He served in the Army adjutant general’s corps, an administrative branch. Furgeson never faced combat, but he took reports from the battlefield from men he still admires—some of whom never came home.

When he left the heat of South Vietnam, it capped the only two years of his life not spent in Texas. Back in Lubbock, Furgeson clerked for a year before starting almost a quarter century career at the law firm of Kemp-Smith in El Paso.

Furgeson began as a young Democrat trial lawyer at a conservative, Republican-dominated firm, something he said mattered little.

“Law’s not about being in a particular party, it’s something different,” Furgeson said.

He worked his way to being a shareholder of the firm, which at its peak employed more than 100 lawyers.

Furgeson loved the dry, harsh desert city—from the people and community, to the best Mexican food in the world. Furgeson’s children went to school in El Paso, where he lived with his first wife, who he married while at Tech.

He was the president of the United Way and the Bar Association and was active in the local Democratic Party, but never ran for office. However, his lasting political impact from that time period was running the El Paso portion of Ann Richards’ successful 1991 gubernatorial campaign.

“She’s the reason I’m a judge, I’m sure,” Furgeson said. “Her personality was bigger than Texas.”

A Fair Judge

It was in 1996 that Furgeson’s accumulated political capital hit pay dirt, when he was appointed to the Federal District Court. His first appointment took him to Midland, a docket that exploded during his tenure from 15 or 20 cases a year to 300 or 400.

“It really almost brought me to my knees,” Furgeson said.

It took him two or three years to get to the point where he felt like he’d seen and done enough to have a full grasp on the job.

Furgeson brought an employee from Kemp-Smith with him when he set out. Kevin Frye worked for the law firm for four years before Furgeson came calling with an offer to be his courtroom deputy.

Frye would remain one of the few constants in Furgeson’s life, as he stayed on from location to location, for all 19 years of his tenure.

In his eight years in Pecos, Odessa and Midland he was responsible for more than 400 miles of border, and he accomplished most of his goals.

Although when most defendants were before Furgeson it was the worst days of their lives, Furgeson took an interest in all of them, Frye said.

“I’ve often spoke with family members, and often they’re like ‘we want to write the judge a thank you letter,’” Frye said. “They want to do something nice for him because he treated that family member who was being sentenced so nice.”

It was that willingness to see the best in people, regardless of circumstances, that could serve Furgeson so well at UNT.

“That’s just how he is,” Frye said. “Everybody gets a fair shot.”

Landmark Case

Furgeson spent the next six years in San Antonio – a much larger area with greater amenities. He said the atmosphere was very collegial among lawyers, and because two of the members of his support staff made the transition with him, he enjoyed it greatly.

It was while in San Antonio that Furgeson encountered what he considers the most important case of his career—the freeing of 17-year death row inmate Ernest Willis.

Furgeson spent hundreds of hours over two years writing a more than 80-page opinion that Willis, who was convicted of arson on circumstantial evidence, deserved a new trial.

“That case concerned me a great deal, I can’t find the right word,” said Furgeson, deep in thought and leaning forward in his chair. “You get worried that if you didn’t do a good enough job[…].”

Furgeson compared the case to another landmark Texas death row reversal, the case of Michael Morton, convicted for murdering his wife after prosecutor misconduct.

“When our system doesn’t work, it causes our people to question if it can,” he said. “It’s just a human system, there’s gonna be error.”

Frye said Furgeson was a perfectionist, but not in a self-serving way.

“He felt if he didn’t get it right, he failed,” Frye said.

A New Venture

Furgeson’s final move took him to Dallas in 2008, where he spent the five years before taking the UNT job.

Dallas wasn’t what Furgeson thought it would be—glitzy and oversophisticated. He immediately liked the judges and the atmosphere.

He left with one of his most complicated cases still undecided, the first time court protesters took to the Internet to bash him and charge him with corruption.

Because the case is ongoing, Furgeson can’t say much about it, but he said he was regretful he couldn’t finish it and had to lasso it off to someone else.

Furgeson left the lifetime appointment to take a risk at what might be the chance to do something special in legal education, in the face of mounting criticism.

“Why in the world do we need another law school?” Furgeson said. ‘The problem isn’t that we have too many, instead it’s that we have too few.”

Just as ardently as he defended the First Amendment rights of court protestors, Furgeson went to work proselytizing about the lack of affordable, accessible law school options for higher-risk students—older students, underrepresented minority students and students other law schools deem inadequate.

The poor, middle class and small businesses are wholly under covered in terms of access to lawyers, he said.

“We have a mission here, that is important,” Furgeson said. “But a lot has to be done.”

Ellen Pryor was appointed the school’s first associate dean in January, after an award-winning career as a professor at Southern Methodist University.

Pryor described that mission as distinctive among the other law schools in Texas.

“It’s a combination of improving access, lowering costs and focusing on excellent teaching and practice related competences,” Pryor said.

Pryor and Furgeson appeared on KERA’s “Think” podcast last week to talk about the looming issues and why they think the project is different.

Much like Furgeson leaving the certainty of his lifetime appointment, prospective students will also take a risk in deciding on UNT Dallas College of Law. Without state accreditation, which could take years, students will not have the protection offered by other law schools.

For now, Furgeson and his small staff are looking for the organization in the organized chaos of the massive project they’ve undertaken.

Before the students arrive and the first lessons are taught, Royal Furgeson stays busy, 12 hours a day, searching for the best way to give every one of them a fair shot. He’s convincing the doubters of the need for a new law school. And from now until August, he’s shepherding prospective applicants into UNT’s first class of law school grads.

Feature photo: Judge Royal Furgeson is the advocate in chief for UNT’s new law school in Dallas. Furgeson says he is ready to take on this momentous task. Photo by Zac Switzer / Contributing Photographer 

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