New England Law, Boston has operated in the shadows of the region’s more prestigious law schools for decades, trailing so far behind in some measures of excellence that US News & World Report does not include the downtown campus in its widely read ranking of 145 better law schools in the nation.
Yet the school’s longtime dean, John F. O’Brien, may be the highest paid law school dean in America, pocketing more than $867,000 a year in salary and benefits, including a “forgivable loan” that he used to buy a Florida condominium.
“It’s a remarkable sum to pay a dean of a law school, never mind the dean of a bottom-ranked law school,” said Brian Z. Tamanaha, a law professor and the author of “Failing Law Schools,” a 2012 book critical of the nation’s legal education system.
O’Brien is paid about as much as the president of Harvard University and more than three times the median salary of law school deans nationally, says a study by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Indeed, New England Law could not name a single law school dean in the country who makes more than O’Brien.
But O’Brien’s story is more than the tale of a richly compensated school administrator. It is also the story of a professor who vaulted, just a few years into his academic career, to the top job at a lower-tier law school in large part through shrewd networking, sheer persistence, and a close relationship with the school’s board of trustees, many of whom have served on the board for most or all of O’Brien’s 25-year tenure as dean.
It is also the story of a law school that has hiked tuition by more than 80 percent in just a few years while doubling the percentage of applicants it accepts, generating the funds for increased student aid but also for the big salaries paid to O’Brien and other top administrators even as the demand for law school graduates dries up.
For years, O’Brien has burnished the school’s reputation and his own through high-profile events staged in luxurious settings where he and other school officials have rubbed elbows with the likes of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. of the US Supreme Court and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
But, away from the glitz, O’Brien’s salary is drawing private criticism from some within the school and public barbs from outside observers who question whether the school is really worth the $40,000 tuition it charges students.
“There’s no relationship between cost and benefit,” said Paul F. Campos, a University of Colorado Law School professor and the author of the blog “Inside the Law School Scam.”
But the 62-year-old O’Brien defends his salary, saying he has “the longest continuous service at a single institution of any law school dean in the country,” and is responsible for all aspects of administering New England Law, unlike other law school deans who are part of a larger university and can rely on university staff.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not a lot of money,” he said in an interview in his Bay Village office. “I think most people would tell you I come to work and I work very hard, day in and day out.”
One such person is Martin C. Foster, a fellow New England Law graduate and the chairman of school’s board of trustees. He insists that O’Brien’s salary is easily justified, pointing out that the percentage of graduates who pass the bar exam and the number of full-time faculty have risen significantly, while O’Brien’s work on national legal issues has raised the school’s profile.
In 2011, after word of his dean’s compensation triggered controversy on the Internet, Foster responded with a post on the website LinkedIn, saying, “Our board has not a shred of doubt that Dean O’Brien is the catalyst, that once-in-a-lifetime ‘game-changer’ who makes our program exponentially better than anyone else could make it.”
New England Law certainly pays top dollar for O’Brien’s services. Pressed to name a dean who is paid more, Robert Gray, a political consultant hired by the school to help O’Brien answer questions from the Globe, cited only Brooklyn Law School, in New York City, where a dean and a president are paid combined salaries of more than $1 million.
But some indicators suggest that O’Brien’s impact on New England Law’s performance has been limited. US News & World Report, in its listing of 199 law schools, includes New England Law among the bottom 50 or so schools that it does not publicly rank because they fall “below the US News cutoff.”Continued...