Public Law School, Once a Controversial Concept in MA, Now Well Established

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Deval Patrick, a former two-term governor of Massachusetts, must be smiling at the news out of the University of Massachusetts School of Law at Dartmouth, formerly Southern New England School of Law.

On Thursday of last week, the school announced that its incoming class of first-year students, numbering 94, is 17.5 percent larger than last year’s, which had 80.  In a press release marking the start of the academic year, the school also said:

- Its incoming class is 42% larger than the class that entered in 2016, the year the school first earned full accreditation by the American Bar Association;
- First-year students come from 25 different states;

- Average age of first-year students is 27;

- Applications for admission increased this past year by more than 20 percent, from 782 to 940;

- 57 percent of applicants were admitted this year, whereas 64 percent were the previous year; It's getting harder to get in.

- Members of the Class of 2017 passed the bar exam on their first try at a rate of 72.7 percent, which placed them fifth behind the graduates of the law schools of Harvard, Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern;  The press release was discrete in that it did not mention the four in-state law schools whose 2017 graduates were bested in this category: Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, New England School of Law and Suffolk University in Boston, and Western New England School of Law in Springfield.

- UMass Law ranked first in New England in 2017 and 11th in nation for percentage of graduates holding jobs in public service: 27 percent.

Although it was a contentious and controversial idea for years prior to becoming a reality in 2010, UMass's operation of a law school no longer provokes argument or questioning. 

UMass Law was created through a take-over of Southern New England School of Law, or what some described as a "gift" by the school of itself to the state.  Southern New England, whose properties and facilities were valued at $23.2 million, had long experienced financial difficulties.

When the UMass take-over was first formally put forth, in 2005, the UMass board of trustees said no.  There were concerns over a possible negative impact on the state budget of a big, new division of UMass, and at least three of the existing private law schools in the state lobbied against the move.
Around that same time, when Deval Patrick was making his first run for governor, he campaigned in the southeastern part of the state on the theme that UMass should absorb and rejuvenate Southern New England and that Massachusetts residents seeking a career in the law, or related to the law, needed and deserved a lower-cost route to a degree.

In February, 2010, when the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education unanimously approved the take-over, Patrick was beginning his second term.  Richard Freeland, former president of Northeastern University and then the state’s commissioner of higher education, noted that the “politics were different” in 2010 than in 2005.
“You clearly had a very supportive governor who wanted to make this happen (the second time around),” Freeland said.

To further its objective of affordability, UMass Law has entered into “3 + 3 agreements” with seven different Massachusetts colleges and universities under which students may fulfill their undergraduate course requirements in three years, enroll at UMass, and earn law degrees in three years; 3 + 3 schools are: Becker College (Worcester), Fitchburg State, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (North Adams), UMass Boston, UMass Dartmouth, UMass Lowell, and Worcester State.

Massachusetts was quite late to the public law school arena, becoming the 45th state to have one.  New Hampshire, then Delaware followed suit.  Only Alaska, Rhode Island and Vermont now do not have public law schools.

Tuition at UMass Law is approximately 40 percent lower than the national average.

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