We have reported on the proposed merger of Southern New England School of Law with the University of Massachusetts, which would bring the first public law school to the state. At the time, I wrote:
I mean no offense by this, but isn’t the Southern New England School of Law not a very good law school? There’s a reason the school isn’t accredited, right? I just don’t see how raising the profile of bad law schools is the right way to go.
Apparently, Southern New England School of Law took offense. The Boston Globe reports:
“My students and faculty have been maligned,” the school’s dean, Robert Ward, said during a recent tour of campus, a 75,000-square-foot three-story building next to an outlet mall in North Dartmouth.
Ward acknowledged his school has a way to go to meet national accreditation standards, but said it is far from the crumbling, financially destitute failure critics portray it to be.
He noted a retired appeals court judge — a Harvard Law graduate, no less — among his 13-member faculty.
Putting aside the question of whether or not Southern New England is a good school, can we get back to the question of whether Massachusetts needs a public law school?
I think that this debate should come down to a question of cost. Southern New England argues that it will be offering a low-cost alternative for legal education:
Tuition and fees, currently $22,175, would be raised slightly to $23,500, still nearly half the cost of Suffolk and New England School of Law. State education officials say the public connection would allow the law school to build upon the strengths of UMass-Dartmouth – public policy, environment, and marine studies.
None other than Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree is in favor of the school:
“I certainly applaud the idea of Massachusetts having a major public law school,” said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who directs the school’s Institute for Race and Justice.
“The interest here is to find more people who are eager to engage in public service. The needs have never been greater, given the number of poor clients who lack access to legal services,” he said.
It is obvious that there is a need for more lawyers willing to serve poor clients. But, once again, I fail to see how $23,500 in tuition accomplishes this goal. Who the hell takes on up to $70K in debt to work a low-income, public interest job?
There are a lot of schools that cost a lot of money that produce a smattering of public interest lawyers. But the vast majority of people spending $70K are going to want to go into profitable, private practice.
This argument that Southern New England Law School at U. Mass. is going to produce an army of public interest lawyers seems intellectually dishonest. I don’t know how low tuition needs to go to allow people to go through three years of legal education and take a low-paying job at legal aid, but I know it’s got to be lower than $23,500.
But John O’Brien, dean of New England School of Law, questioned the feasibility of UMass’s plan to generate enough revenue to prepare the school for national accreditation. Other new law schools have had to significantly discount tuition in their initial years of operation to entice talented students to enroll, he said.
“You can’t expect good students to come who could otherwise go to an accredited school,” O’Brien said.
This brings us back to the question of the quality of education that will be available at Southern New England should it merge with U. Mass. Essentially, the most compelling argument that the school would produce a bunch of public servants is that its graduates won’t be able to get jobs anywhere else. “Don’t worry, our graduates won’t be able to get spots in Biglaw or even mid-law, so we’ll be training the public defenders of the future. ”
And that’s a fine argument — albeit horribly cynical. And I’m sure there are students who will be going to Southern New England who don’t want to do anything other than work on asylum cases or some other field of law where there is a critical lack of attorneys. Some, but not all. Why? Because people don’t usually fork over $70K for psychic goods. “Working-class” people don’t usually commit to a $70,000 burden for the opportunity to make less than a plumber.
We have more than enough schools that produce public interest lawyers by default. What we need is a school that is going to really focus on public work and make it a possible and economically viable career option for most of its graduates. Southern New England has still failed to make a cogent argument for how their school is going to accomplish that goal.
Law school takes on its detractors [Boston Globe]
Earlier: How Much Is a Law School Worth?