UMass hopes to bring law school into fold

By Caitlin Soto

While Massachusetts has never offered its residents a public law school, things could be changing for those who feel they cannot afford private school prices. Last week, University of Massachusetts officials announced they have revived a plan to open a public law school in Dartmouth with the donation of the Southern New England School of Law (SNESL).

SNESL has offered to impart all assets of the school to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus, including real estate, facilities, technologies and the library, assets that have an estimated total value of $22 million dollars. This donation would be the second largest donation in the history of the UMass education system.

The details of the plan call for UMass to absorb the 230-student SNESL, with classes beginning as a public law school in the fall of 2010. The plan also aims to increase enrollment, as well as to invest $13.8 million over a five-year span to bring the school up to the standards of the American Bar Association (ABA), with the hope being that the school will have accreditation from the ABA by 2012. If that plan succeeds as hoped, UMass may just have found a “diamond in the rough” that could be quite profitable well into the future.

In the state of Massachusetts, there are currently nine private law schools, and the cost of following the dream of a law degree can be exceptionally high. Currently, law school graduates can pay more than $140,000 for their education.  Law school tuition ranges from a few thousand to more than $30,000 per year. Add living costs to tuition, and the total expenses greatly increase.

“The ability to pay thousands of dollars in loans after graduation is difficult for recent law graduates,” said Massachusetts attorney Angela Downey. “I believe this proposal would greatly benefit the state and those who would otherwise not be able to afford a law education.”

The proposal being considered by UMass is an alternative to a similar plan hatched five years ago. In 2005, the UMass system approved a proposal to bring the law school under the umbrella of UMass Dartmouth’s continuing education program. The proposal went to the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, where its hopes were crushed by board members, who questioned whether the structure of the proposal was legal.

Under the 2005 plan’s continuing education structure, the proposed law school would have been able to keep all the tuition and fees because it would have been expected to be self-sufficient. Now, the current plan has changed this mindset, abandoning the continuing education structure in the hope that it will pass this time.

The current idea, proposed by UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack, would finally provide residents of the Commonwealth with a public law school option, with Massachusetts joining the list of 44 other states that have already offered this alternative.

The proposal of a public law school would save students thousands of dollars per year over private schools. The law school would charge $24,000 a year in tuition and fees, and along with tuition cuts, the school is willing to offer scholarships to qualifying students who commit to serving public interest law for four years after graduation. These scholarships would cut their tuition in half.

Some critics are skeptical about the idea of a public law school. In an economy where the current public higher education systems are struggling to stay afloat, some question the creation of a public law school at this particular moment. Proponents of the proposal insist that taxpayers would not have to shoulder the burden of paying for a public law school, however. Instead, proposal suggests that the cost of the law school would be covered by increasing enrollment over five years, and by investing millions from equity to win accreditation.

Caitlin Soto can be reached at [email protected]