BRIDGEWATER – The Board of Higher Education today approved the creation of Massachusetts’ first public law school, a historic vote that opens the doors for the initial class of students to enroll in the fall.
Under the controversial plan, vehemently opposed by three private law schools, UMass-Dartmouth will acquire the private Southern New England School of Law, which is donating its campus and assets to the state.
“In the end, this comes down to quite a simple question: Is it, in the long term, in the best interest of the state for this state to support an affordable public law school?” asked Richard Freeland, state commissioner of higher education. “In my mind, the answer is yes.
“I do not have the slightest doubt that in the years to come, UMass will take this plan and built it into a public law school of which we will all be proud,” Freeland said before a standing-room-only crowd in the campus center of Bridgewater State College where the board meeting was held.
The public law school, which will face the challenge of getting accredited by the American Bar Association, will focus on public-service law with a curriculum in civil and human rights, legal support for operating businesses, community law practice, and economic justice. Click here for the new law school's website.
UMass Dartmouth chancellor Jean MacCormack has said the public law school would operate free of taxpayer dollars and eventually funnel millions into UMass Dartmouth and the state through expanded enrollment. Officials have estimated that the school would grow from 235 students to 559 by 2017.
The most vocal opponents of the plan were Suffolk University, New England School of Law, and Western New England School of Law in Springfield. They question the financial blueprint, saying the new school would cost taxpayers millions while burdening the state with more law schools and lawyers than it needs.
The unanimous approval signals an about-face for the board, which had rejected a similar proposal in 2005.
“This brings our university into line with virtually all the great public universities in the United States and makes us 45th of 50 by having a law school,” said Paul Reville, secretary of education. “This gives us a chance to incorporate needed diversity into our university and provides a public service dimension.”
The school, which aims to make a legal education more affordable, will charge about $23,500 a year for in-state tuition, much less than many private law schools. Out-of-state tuition is expected to be $31,000.
It also hopes to diversify the legal profession in the state, where Hispanics and African-Americans make up just 3.5 percent of attorneys even though they make up 12.6 percent of the state population, according to a Board of Higher Education report.
Most of the 965,000 Massachusetts residents eligible for free legal aid are turned away because there aren’t enough public service lawyers, according to a 2008 report by the Boston Bar Association Task Force on Expanding the Civil Rights to Counsel.
Just 272 attorneys work for the state’s 21 legal services organizations, representing one lawyer for every 3,350 low-income resident, the report said. As a result, large numbers of people appear in civil cases without legal representation.
UMass-Dartmouth expects to create a program to give students enrolled in any UMass campus the opportunity to earn an accelerated law degree, compacting their undergraduate studies into three years and beginning the first year of law school during their senior year.
New Hampshire is also in the process of creating a public law school. That leaves just Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, and Alaska as the only states without a public law school.
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