O’Brien prefers to emphasize the percentage of New England Law graduates who pass the Massachusetts Bar exam, the final test law school graduates must take before they can practice law.
“People can argue about the quality of a law school, but there is one objective factor that is hard to refute, and that is how well your students do when they take the bar,” he said.
Still, the difficult job market has driven down law school applications nationally — including a 9.6 percent drop at New England Law since 2006 — forcing schools to come up with new strategies to stay in the black.
New England Law has prospered through a combination of raising tuition and lowering standards for admission, a strategy followed by a number of other law schools around the country.
Since 2006, New England Law has raised tuition from $22,475 to $40,984, an 82 percent increase. It has also steadily increased the percentage of applicants who are accepted, from 37.9 percent in 2004 to 70.6 percent in 2011. As a result, even though the number of applicants has fallen, the number of students at the school rose from 1,101 to 1,141.
But incoming New England Law students today are arguably less academically qualified than their predecessors. The median grade point average of the school’s entering class fell from 3.27 in 2007 to 3.15 in fall 2011. Median LSAT scores climbed from 151 to 153 from 2008 to 2010, but dropped to 149 last fall, according to New England Law.
Critics of the nation’s legal education system question the ethics of lowering academic standards to maintain class size.
“Schools that lower credentials and increase class size at a time of significant decline in the number of applicants are going for the money,” said Tamanaha, the Washington University law school professor and author of “Failing Laws Schools.”
O’Brien, for his part, said that while New England Law has aggressively sought to maintain class size in recent years, it may change course and admit fewer students, a step some other law schools have already taken.
“There’s absolutely no question we were looking to hit our [enrollment] number,” he said. “But we very much have on the table the fact that we may become smaller.”