Battle Lines Form Over Mass. Law School
Just a few days after University of Massachusetts officials announced a plan to take over the private, unaccredited Southern New England School of Law and give the state its first public law school, proponents and opponents are lining up for what promises to be a heated battle. But with only sparse outlines of the plan yet on the table, the arguments on both sides seem to be appealing more to passion than reason.
Perhaps the least-considered argument against the school is that a new law school would only add more lawyers to what is already a surplus. An article makes this point today in The Boston Globe, quoting as its authority on the Massachusetts legal scene the New York-based blogger Elie Mystal of Above the Law. "I think that having another law school inevitably leads to more lawyers," Mystal says, adding that the UMass plan is a way to get "taxpayers to pay for more legal professionals in a market that already has too many."
Of course, as Mystal has already pointed out, this would not be a new law school. It would be a transformation of an existing school from private to public. No question, the Bay State has a glut of law schools -- nine by my count. But that does not mean that all those grads stay in the state. Harvard and Boston University in particular are known for sending many of their graduates to New York, Washington and elsewhere. And SNESL is already sending its grads into this job market, crowded or not. In fact, accreditation would free more of them to leave the state.
It would be useful to the debate if someone could offer some numbers showing where these law school grads end up. It would also be useful to know the kinds of jobs they take. Are enough of them going into public service? Last time I checked, there were huge swaths of the Massachusetts population whose legal needs were unmet or underserved. The UMass proposal would set aside 25 seats in each class for students who would commit to serving in public-interest law for four years after graduation.That is a good start and maybe that aspect of the proposal could be shored up.
The stronger argument against the proposal is cost. "No cash for this clunker," urges an editorial in The Boston Herald. "It would take tens of millions of dollars to provide the assets that could win it ABA accreditation," the editorial says. Joan Vennochi, a columnist for The Boston Globe, also argues that the state cannot afford to take over the law school. "There’s no such thing as a free lunch or property acquisition," she writes. "Once UMass owns the law school, taxpayers become responsible for faculty salaries, student housing, and all other infrastructure and resources needed to support the campus." The state treasurer, Timothy Cahill, makes the same point.
But John Quinn, a Democratic state representative from Dartmouth, where the law school would be based, says that the state is currently giving $20 million a year to private law schools in the form of scholarships and other aid. "Maybe we can't afford the $20-million-a-year subsidy to schools that are sitting on billion-dollar endowments," he told the Standard-Times. Is it purely coincidental that these same law schools are leading the charge against the public option?
An editorial in that newspaper argues that a takeover by UMass of the SNESL assets would cut by at least half the cost of accrediting a new public law school from scratch. And the school would fill a need for a more affordable law school for college graduates in the state, offering tuition at $15,000 to $20,000 less than they would pay at a private school.
There are good arguments on both sides. It seems to me that one area that requires greater exploration is how a public law school could help the state better serve the needs of its residents who lack access to legal services. Strengthen the public-service component and the argument for a public law school would become stronger.
Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 19, 2009 at 11:10 AM | Permalink
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