Why I’m happy UMass Law got accredited

If you’ve followed this blog, read even a little of my website, or just seen a few of the depressing articles I’ve linked to on Facebook, you know I’m not an uncritical booster of law school and legal careers in general.  In fact, I’m pretty clear that you need to question seriously whether law school is a good investment, and I’m a big proponent of the idea that you should investigate legal careers thoroughly before taking the plunge.  You might also intuit, from my many posts about the job market for new lawyers, that I agree with the suggestion from many legal education critics that we’re producing too many lawyers

So why on earth would I be cheering the ABA accreditation of the newest addition to the UMass system, the law school at UMass Dartmouth?  Have I given up my role as objective advisor and become a UMass loyalist, simply parroting the (unofficial) company line?

Not likely.  But good questions, all the same, and ones that deserve straightforward answers. 

At the start, it’s important to remember that this is not a new law school, and is therefore not adding to the overall number of law grads in the state.  Southern New England School of Law, which UMass took over two years ago, had been producing lawyers for over 20 years, boasting a total of 1,200 alums. Now, thanks to the ABA’s imprimatur, future grads of UMass Law will be able to take the bar in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia), and will be more competitive in the job market.

But it certainly doesn’t help a saturated job market to keep the school in business at all.  Wouldn’t it have been better for SNESL to simply go out of business, rather than having UMass take it over?  Isn’t the UMass system now complicit in the ongoing overproduction of lawyers, hurting law grads all over the state?  If there was nothing particularly different about what UMass offers, I’d probably say yes.  But there are two aspects of UMass Law’s plan that give me hope:

1. Low cost.  In-state tuition and fees at UMass Law are just over $24,000/year for the coming academic year, and out-of-state is $31,000; UMass Law just announced that tuition will be frozen at those levels for the next three years.  This compares to roughly $38,000 for Western New England, $43,000 at New England Law, and around $44,000 at Suffolk Law.  The private schools will tell you that due to scholarships, the average tuition paid by their students is significantly more comparable to the UMass tuition than the sticker price would indicate. That’s great if you are able to obtain and maintain a substantial scholarship, but that’s not a given.  (UMass also has scholarships available of course.)  The bottom line is that UMass starts out with a much lower sticker price for all students.  When lawyers are coming out of law school with, on average, over $100,000 in educational debt—just from law school—cost is an important factor.  It’s my hope that UMass’ lower cost and promise to freeze costs will pressure other schools in the state to freeze or perhaps even lower their own tuition, making law school more affordable for all Massachusetts students.

2. Public interest focus.  Since it took over SNESL, UMass Law has been billing itself as a public interest/service law school.  The recent hiring of Mary Lu Bilek as the new Dean of the Law School seems to back up that promise: Dean Bilek has held a number of leadership roles at one of the nation’s premier public interest law schools, CUNY Law, for over 25 years.  Her full bio gives a sense of her commitment to public interest law. 

Why is this important? The ongoing story about the oversupply of lawyers has focused mostly on corporate law—too many law grads seeking too few well-paying jobs in firms representing big business. But the focus on this segment of law world obscures a very different story elsewhere: the serious shortfall in attorneys for poor and middle class individuals, and for small businesses.  This is a very significant and growing problem—an ever increasing segment of our population has little or no access to the courts and justice system.  There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the difficulty attorneys face in eking out a living taking on these types of cases.  My hope is that a public school focused on public interest and public service can tackle these access to justice issues, inspiring and training its attorneys to come up with innovative ways to draw resources to this type of practice.  (For example, if technology is transforming the practice of business law, surely some form of it can be brought to bear on making small law practices focused on individual clients’ needs more efficient as well.)  Could UMass Law become a leader in such innovative practices?  Maybe.  We’ll have to see, but it at least represents the possibility of a move in that direction.

None of this is a given, of course.  UMass law could end up going the way of so many other schools (and lawyers), seeming to lose a little bit of their souls, and of their commitment to improving the justice system for all people. (Harvard Prof. Lawrence Lessig gave a particularly good commencement speech on this issue not too long ago—it’s worth the read.)  And regardless of how its curriculum, faculty, bar passage rates, placement opportunities, etc. develop over the coming years, it won’t be the right choice for everyone.  It’s critical that prospective applicants carefully research and consider all of their options, in light of their own goals and each school’s strengths and weaknesses.

You might not know it from the amount of depressing law job news I’ve shared with you over the last couple of years, but I’m a hopeful and optimistic person by nature.  I want UMass Law to succeed because it appeals to that hopeful part of my nature, the part that believes UMass has the potential to be transformative in legal education and the profession.  As a citizen and taxpayer, as someone who cares deeply about the future of the legal profession, and as a true believer in the possibilities—and of the responsibilities—of public higher education, I want to not just hope for UMass Law to be innovative and transformative, but also to hold it accountable for doing so.  You can count on this office keeping a close eye on how the school develops, and reporting those developments to you, for good and for bad.

And finally, I should address the obvious question of whether I have felt any pressure to support my own university system’s law school.  The answer is, not a whit.  Indeed, when the initial proposal to take over Southern New England Law was put forward, I wrote several posts pointing to various criticisms of the idea.  (You can find them here, here and here.)  For the last two years, I have continued to caution students about attending any unaccredited law school, including UMass.  As a pre-law advisor, I am subjected to both general and targeted marketing from law schools pretty much every week—from emails advertising various programs, to requests to visit students, to the endless number of law school inscribed swag the schools provide at the Pre-Law Advisors conferences (water bottles were the stock in trade at this year’s DC conference).  Since UMass acquired SNESL, I have received nothing more than a couple of general emails from the law school (sent to all pre-law advisors), and had a few low-key conversations with a former pre-law advising colleague who is now on the faculty at UMass Law.  They haven’t even given me a water bottle!  Outside of the marketing, there has been no institutional pressure—or even communication with me—about the law school.  Which is as it should be.  Should that ever change, you should expect to see me writing about it right here.