Founded at the turn of the 20th century, the University of South Dakota School of Law (SDU Law) remains the only law school in the state of South Dakota and plays a vital role in the education of lawyers in the state. The law school spent its first 82 years in the same building into its current home on the main campus of the university in Vermillion, South Dakota. The law school is noteworthy for its small student body–it is the smallest public law school in the country–as well as its affordability. The law school has an impressive record of graduating key figures in South Dakota’s political landscape. SDU Law has produced eight governors of the state, 18 Attorneys General, and 28 justices of the South Dakota Supreme Court.
At SDU Law, all Juris Doctor candidates must complete 90 credit hours of which 32 are made up of the first-year curriculum. The coursework combines both core academic lessons with practical skills. On the academic side, students study civil procedure, contracts, criminal law and procedure, property, and torts. To begin their practical training, all students study the foundations of law and legal research as well as fundamental legal skills.
The upper-level required curriculum comprises another 19 to 21 credit hours meaning that over 50 hours of 90 hours required to complete the Juris Doctor degree are prescribed. Upper-level students do have some choice in some of their required courses. Students must complete courses in constitutional law, evidence, and professional reasonability. Students select one course from a menu of advanced regulatory courses covering subjects such as taxation or environmental law. Students also choose six hours of coursework from approved experiential learning programs or courses. All students also complete a final skill-based course in the final year of study that covers critical legal skills.
In completing the remaining 36 to 37 hours of their J.D. program, most students pursue a curricular track to ensure that they are prepared to practice in a certain area of the law. The curricular tracks also dovetail into SDU Law’s career planning program to help students transition into their professional careers.
SDU Law does offer a flex degree path that is available only to students who meet certain qualifications. The flexible program allows students to graduate over the course of 10 semesters (five academic years) with semesters ranging from 7 to 11 credit hours. All other requirements remain the same. Flex-time students may also transfer into the full-time track after completing the first four semesters of the program.
SDU Law offers all its Juris Doctor candidates the opportunity to earn an additional degree as part of a joint degree program. This program allows students to earn an interdisciplinary degree from one of eight other professional schools or a Master of Environmental Law and Policy from the Vermont Law School. At the University of South Dakota, J.D. students can pair their law degree with a Master’s degree in business, educational administration and leadership, English, history, political science, public administration, professional accountancy, psychology, or administrative studies. After completing the first-year curriculum, both degrees are pursued concurrently which allows students to gain additional insights into the law and their other degree. Students are able to recognize the influence of the law in other professional fields as well as other academic subjects.
The program in conjunction with the Vermont Law School offers students the unique opportunity to earn their J.D. from SDU and a Master’s degree from one of the top environmental law schools in the country. Students earn their Master’s degree through nine-week summer sessions at Vermont Law as well as through credits earned at SDU Law.
SDU Law also affords students the opportunity to study at two Chinese law schools as part of a summer program in conjunction with the University of Montana School of Law. The program awards students credit for their international law studies as they are also immersed in the language, culture, and traditions of China.
Career and Career Placement
SDU Law has an excellent record for placing its graduates in long-term, full-time careers. The most recent employment data demonstrated that 90% of all graduates are employed within 10 months of graduation with 88% employed in careers that either require a law license or prefers a Juris Doctor degree. SDU Law’s importance to the South Dakota legal community is evident in graduates’ job choices as well. Less than 30% of all graduates opt for private, law firm careers while over 30% of graduates choose careers in government offices or in public interest careers. A quarter of graduates pursue judicial clerkship most in the South Dakota State courts. As expected, nearly 80% of all graduates remain in South Dakota to practice law.
The goal of the USD Knudson School of Law Office of Career Services (OCS) is not only to help every student find a career but find a career that is meaningful. To fulfill this goal, the OCS combines traditional job search strategies with professional development programs that help students define their goals and career aspirations. The OCS provides one-on-one career counseling services, collects resumes for on-campus interview opportunities, and helps students prepare their professional documents. The OCS maintains a job posting database where students can view employer postings targeted at SDU Law students.
Experiential Learning/Distance Education
All SDU Law graduates are required to complete six hours of experiential education requirements. These credits are earned through participation in the school’s many experiential learning programs many of which are available to students after they complete their first-year program. In the school’s externship program, students work under the supervision of a practicing attorney in a regional law office. While the externship program is a year-round program, students only work full-time during the summer session. Students work in a wide variety of offices from law firms to non-profit agencies.
SDU Law is also home to an in-house Federal Tax clinic that offers free representation to low-income clients in the region. Students work with clients on a variety of tax-related issues and appear before the IRS on behalf of their clients. This clinic offers students a unique opportunity to practice tax law while still being supervised by faculty experts.
SDU Law students may also participate in either a tax planning or criminal defense practicum. These courses teach by doing. Students work on real-cases in conjunction with state agencies as they master more complex legal skills. True to its mission, SDU Law also offers students a number of opportunities to build their practical skills through pro bono work that aids the community and helps deepen their commitment to the ethical practice of law.
At this time, all SDU Law’s degree programs require residential coursework.
Despite being the smallest public law school in the country, students at SDU Law enjoy all the benefits of larger schools. SDU Law is home to a student-run academic journal, an active moot court program, and over 15 different student organizations. The law school is located on the main campus in Vermillion, South Dakota in walking distance of the university’s main student center. The campus is surrounded by Vermillion’s charming neighborhoods that offer affordable housing. Across the street, students have quick access to the school’s many health and recreation facilities.
The town of Vermillion is a quintessential college town located just an hour south of Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city. The city is built around a main street where the law school sits in walking distance to the town’s business center. With a population of under 12,000 residents, Vermillion still offers a surprising number of parks, dining, and museums for its residence. For those willing to make the drive, Sioux Falls offers additional amenities. To the south, Sioux City, Iowa offers another (even closer) mid-sized city where students may also retreat for additional housing and entertainment options.