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New co-op law school will compete with Northeastern

Drexel's program will be 2d in nation

Northeastern University School of Law, the only law school in the country to require its students to complete an innovative co-op program, is about to get some competition.

Drexel University in Philadelphia is preparing to open a law school that also will offer mandatory cooperative legal education, which gives students hands-on experience before they graduate. Drexel officials say they are banking on interest in the co-op program, as well as in the curriculum's focus on healthcare law, intellectual property, and entrepreneurship to lure students and differentiate the school in the educational marketplace. Drexel recruiters will be trolling for prospective New England students at an open house in Boston tonight.

The new law school, scheduled to open next September in a building now under construction on Drexel's campus in West Philadelphia, would be the only one to require cooperative education besides Northeastern, which pioneered the concept more than 35 years ago. Northeastern's law school has made co-ops mandatory for graduation since 1968, a requirement rooted in its founding principle that the best legal education should combine classroom work with a significant amount of real-world experience.

The program places students in full-time jobs at more than 700 participating law firms, corporations, nonprofit groups, and government agencies. The experience can make Northeastern students more appealing to employers than graduates from other schools.

Drexel University's president, Constantine Papadakis, said the decision to launch a co-op program was driven by ''listening to the customers, meaning the companies that hire law students." Employers say that ''when they hire lawyers fresh out of school it takes them two years to learn how to produce, and companies don't like that. They like to hire a graduate and have them immediately be useful."

Based on Drexel's experience with its more than 9,000 undergraduates, who also must complete a co-op program, ''this works perfectly," he said. ''Our students hit the ground running, they are very successful immediately, they usually have much faster careers, and they get higher salaries because they have experience."

Annual tuition at Drexel's law school will be $28,000. Drexel hopes to receive at least 1,000 applications for its first class of 120 students; 200 applications have been received so far, Papadakis said.

The entering class will be divided into two sections of 60 students. While half the class works in co-op jobs, the other half will take classes. Then the two groups will flip roles.

Northeastern administrators, who said they were visited by Drexel officials several months ago to discuss Drexel's new program, said they support Drexel's initiative but believe Northeastern's program stands alone.

''We don't see Drexel as a threat in any way to the Northeastern program," said Northeastern law school dean Emily Spieler, ''because the depth of our program really can't be duplicated very quickly. So while we welcome Drexel into the field, we actually think they have a lot of barriers to overcome."

Those barriers, Spieler said, include a much shorter list of participating employers (currently 60, compared to Northeastern's 700), a much smaller faculty (eight full-time faculty members, compared to Northeastern's 34), and the school's lack of accreditation.

Prospective applicants to Drexel's law school will have to overcome a significant concern: The school cannot apply for accreditation from the American Bar Association until it has completed at least one year of operation, and cannot be granted provisional accreditation until at least the start of its third year. That means entering students won't know whether they will graduate from an accredited school until at least August 2008, although Papadakis said he is confident the school will receive accreditation. Accreditation ensures that a law school has met the ABA's educational standards, and without it graduates may be unable to take the bar exam.

''It's great Drexel wants to try this," Spieler added. ''We've thought for a very long time that the co-op model is really the best one for training students, and we've been surprised that more schools haven't tried it.

''So if other law schools want to try it we not only offer to help them, but we also think it's a great addition to legal education nationally."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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