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UMass could add to surplus

New school might swell lawyers’ ranks

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / October 19, 2009

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Speaking before William & Mary law students at their graduation in May, Columbia University law professor Robert E. Scott warmed up the crowd with an old courthouse chestnut about the lawyer who angrily confronts his plumber over a bill.

“What in the world is going on? I don’t charge $250 per hour,’’ the lawyer said. “Neither did I, when I practiced law,’’ the plumber replied.

The joke played to the widespread impression, fair or not, that there are simply too many lawyers, and that society would be none the worse if a goodly portion found a new line of work.

In Massachusetts, where the concentration of lawyers ranks among the nation’s highest, the stereotype, no matter how simplistic, resonates all the stronger.

As the University of Massachusetts resumes plans for the state’s first public law school at its Dartmouth campus - a proposal fiercely opposed by private programs that fear sharpened competition - a secondary debate has also emerged. Would a new school increase the state’s sizable stock of lawyers?

Joking aside, many observers said introducing a public option to the crowded law school field would probably draw more young professionals into the popular, if oft-maligned, field.

“I think that having another law school inevitably leads to more lawyers,’’ said Elie Mystal, editor of the popular legal blog Above The Law, in which he panned the UMass proposal as a way to get “taxpayers to pay for more legal professionals in a market that already has too many.’’

Because graduates of state law schools tend to stay put, “a new UMass law school would certainly mean more Massachusetts lawyers specifically,’’ Mystal said.

Many critics of the UMass plan to acquire the Southern New England School of Law, one of nine law schools in the state, have focused on the public expense of upgrading the institution, particularly in a bleak budget year.

Although the Dartmouth school would give UMass all its assets, valued at more than $22 million, officials at area law schools said the cost of bolstering its library collection and hiring additional faculty would still be prohibitive.

But others voiced a separate concern, that a competitively priced law school would flood an oversaturated market with more aspiring lawyers. Treasurer Tim Cahill was diplomatic, calling the law “a profession we may not need more of.’’ Many were more blunt.

“Suffice it to say that nobody is running around wishing we had more personal injury attorneys,’’ Mystal said.

With 14.5 lawyers for every 10,000 residents, Massachusetts boasts (or bemoans, depending on your outlook) the fourth-highest concentration of lawyers in the country, trailing only the District of Columbia, New York, and Delaware, where business-friendly laws attract many of the nation’s largest corporations.

The economic turmoil of the past year has only stiffened the competition, lawyers say.

“This has been a pretty severe shock to the legal system,’’ said Christine Hughes, vice president and general counsel at Emerson College.

The availability of jobs, she said, is a far more significant influence on career decisions than a new school.

“The drying-up of the market will have a stronger impact on the flow of lawyers into the system than anything else,’’ she said.

Despite the area’s deep reservoir of legal minds, calls for a public law school have come up before.

In 2004, UMass trustees approved a similar plan to take over the law school, but state education officials rejected the plan amid sharp resistance from some private law schools, which vast numbers of state lawmakers attended.

Massachusetts is one of just six states without a public law school, and UMass officials say the law school’s low-priced tuition - an estimated $24,000 a year - would allow more graduates to take lower-paying public service positions.

But at a time when top law firms are deferring planned hires, some lawyers speculate that graduates will be forced to pursue positions that are lucrative enough to defray hefty student loan payments, some said.

“Even at half the price of private law schools, the proposed UMass public law school will still put its students in a massive debt hole, and those students will probably take the most lucrative private practice job they can kind to pay off those debts,’’ Mystal said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com