UMass Law wins ABA accreditation after eight-year battle for respect

The state’s only public law school earned national accreditation Tuesday, capping off its eight-year battle for respect and affirming efforts by the outgoing University of Massachusetts Dartmouth chancellor who fought hard to see the school established.

UMass Law will now have provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association, which will review it every year for the next three to ensure it continues to meet ABA standards. At the end of the three years, the school will be eligible for full accredited status.

“It’s like a glowing Good Housekeeping seal of approval that we know what we’re doing,” said Jean MacCormack, who will step down at the end of the month. “I feel like people said it couldn’t be done, like, ‘No, you can’t play in that arena.’ Of course we can. Our students don’t have to apologize.”

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The new accreditation will allow future UMass Law graduates to take the bar exam in any state, rather than the two—Massachusetts and Connecticut—that are currently allowed. It will not apply retroactively to the 53 members of the school’s inaugural class, who graduated May 21, though they will be able to tell potential employers they are graduates of an accredited institution.

The school, which currently has 325 students, expects a bump in applications for next year. Its new dean, Mary Lu Bilek, appointed June 7, said accreditation would help the school attract mentors for students entering a tough legal job market.

“This means we can move more quickly so our students have not only the skills they need, but also role models and a realistic sense of what the viable models are for making a living in the law,” she said.

Accreditation will also help the school refine its public service mission, Bilek added.

“A public law school has a special obligation to graduate as lawyers students who are going to be public servants or who are civic-minded,” she said. “If you pay high tuition, you pretty much either have to get a big firm job or wonder how you’re going to crawl out of bankruptcy for the rest of your life. But when you’re in a school where tuition is half of what it is at other schools in the area, you can think about going into the district attorney’s office, or becoming a clerk for a judge, or doing legal aid and services.”

A public law school was first proposed in early 2004. When UMass began negotiations to found the school by acquiring a struggling private institution, the Southern New England School of Law, it faced skepticism from several sides. The private institution was itself unaccredited. Other law schools lobbied against the public school’s founding.

And some critics in state government said the move might siphon resources from the UMass system as a whole. In 2005, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education voted against taking over the Southern New England School of Law’s assets, saying the plan was fiscally unsound, though the board later approved the merger in 2010.

Throughout the debate, MacCormack maintained that the new school—far from sapping taxpayer dollars—would eventually become a source of revenue from tuition dollars.

A UMass Dartmouth spokesman said last week that the school has already returned $1.3 million to the state.

Governor Deval Patrick hailed the school’s milestone Tuesday.

“Today is a great day for UMass, the SouthCoast region and for our Commonwealth as a whole,” he said. “The accreditation of UMass Law marks a milestone in our efforts to expand access to high-quality and affordable education.”