UMass School of Law sets agenda

Issue April 2010

by Christina P. O'Neill

The UMass Dartmouth School of Law is now the state's first and only public law school, the result of a decision by the board of trustees of the 28-year-old Southern New England School of Law to relinquish that school's assets to the UMass system.

The move garnered the support of legal aid organizations across the state - and attracted critics who questioned the need for a public law school in difficult economic times when big firms were laying off associates.

The law school's directors and administration say that's just the point - that its graduates are more likely to opt for positions that are more community-based. They cite evidence of a 'pent-up demand' for legal education as the recession begins to lift. Applications for this fall are up threefold over the same time last year.

The law school, which is self-sustaining, comes under the umbrella of UMass' $200 million research university operation with inter-disciplinary pro-gramming, a 450,000-volume library, and the potential to partner with UMass-Dartmouth's Charlton College of Business and the new School of Education, Public Policy and Civic Engagement on activities. The objective is to grow enrollment from about 200 currently to 500 over the next several years.

In March, Lawyers Journal inter-viewed Robert Ward (RW), dean of the UMass Dartmouth School of Law, Margaret Xifaras (MX), the law school's chairman of the board, and John Hoey (JH), assistant chancellor, public affairs, at UMass-Dartmouth. The interview below has been edited and condensed for length.

LJ: With the economy in the doldrums, and eight private law schools in the state, why do we need a public law school?

RW: Human beings tend to become reflective when they are faced with a challenge and so, historically, when times are bad, people apply to graduate schools, and law schools are no exception to that. If you were to trace the rate of applications to law schools over the last 20 years, I guarantee that you would find that the numbers increased during hard economic times.

MX: For many people from various demographics and various ages, this is as good a time as any to look at a law school alternative, because now there is a public option which provides for affordability and accessibility in ways that have not previously been available. So we think this is the absolute appropriate time.

JH: Opponents to the public law school who cite the economy asked why we need more lawyers. Well, what we knew all along was that they were asking the wrong questions. The reality is, who gets to be one? Not that we have too many, but who gets to be one? (For student profiles, see sidebar, next page.) And now people are taking a second look at this institution - its faculty, students and alumni, because of all the publicity that has generated real applications.

LJ: What do you have to do to bring the school up to national accreditation standards of the American Bar Association?

MX: We are regionally accredited; our students are able to sit [for the bar exam] in many of the New England states, but not able to sit nationally because of the lack of national accreditation. We sought national accreditation [from the American Bar Association in 1996] and were told we needed to [add] more library [resources], more fulltime faculty and clinics. We then invested in excess of $1 million doing just those three things and others, and when we reapplied [in 1999], we were told that we did not have sufficient financial reserves. That was very frustrating.

LJ: What needs to be done to make the school self-sustaining?

RW: One of the arguments advanced by the opponents is that it costs $40 to $50 million to start a law school, so by giving a gift of $22 million to the university, we cut - if you accept that hypothesis - we cut the cost of the state having a public law school dramatically.

MX: We're taking in $4 million [annually], but we essentially spend $4 million. And so we're operating in the black, and obviously on those numbers, we can't put aside the reserves. We knew this, our board talked about it endlessly, and tried to figure a way out of the thicket. We also knew that we have assets. This building and land has recently been appraised at $8.2 million. We only have about $1.6 million in debt. That is a debt-to-equity ratio that I would love my clients to have. But we can't essentially bet the farm by borrowing against that equity, hoping against hope that that will be at the capitalization that we need to jump us to the next level. We would need to put everything on the line and that's just not a good strategic plan. We thought it would be actually simpler and clearer to give ourselves [to UMass], essentially for the greater good.

LJ: So giving the school away rather than taking on debt allows you to maintain the thin margin that will make the school more accessible to public-school students?

MX: Right. Our current capacity is currently underutilized, so the build-out required to accommodate the additional students is relatively limited, given that you're filling underutilized capacity. If you think of it in a business context, that just makes really good sense, and if you think about it in a different capacity, the university system has a capacity to use the net equity in ways that we couldn't.

LJ: Do you think more of the students you want to attract will be interested in the law school, now that it's part of the UMass system?

RW: As of this morning [March 15], we have 215 applications for the fall. Last year, for the entire recruiting season, we only had 201 or 202.

MX: We're one-third of the way through the recruiting season and already exceeding our full-year numbers last year, so we are trending toward what could arguably be a good three times previous levels of applications. We have already exceeded the number of last year, so trended out, we could see triple the applications.

JH: We have only begun the formal strategic massive marketing effort to directly reach out to people interested in going to law school in the fall. The delay was partly because the university didn't want to be presumptuous about winning approval. So we didn't want to be out there recruiting students before we knew, even informally. We had to wait until Feb. 2 before we even began putting things together. The idea that we're at 215 or 216 when all last year we were at 201, that's a testament to the excitement about the idea. There's just a pent-up demand for a public law school option. At the beginning of a major recession, graduate school applications flatten out. But when there's a sign that the recession is beginning to end, there is a spike in applications and that's what happened during the last major recession and it's going to happen here. We're going to be riding a wave of applications.

MX: Our student GPAs and LSAT profiles have gone up as well, and that's important as we look to position ourselves for excellence in performance and the application for ABA accreditation.

LJ: Has that trend laid to rest any concerns you may have had about being able to attract talented students?

RW: Actually, we never had that concern. When we were looking at different ways to undercut that argument, I never had any concern about that.

MX: During the governor's visit last week, he met with our students. Even though I've done this work for many years, it's always remarkable to hear the backgrounds of these students and their motivation. My favorite day is graduation. If you've got 38-40 graduates, you're going to have 300-400 people in the audience. When someone graduates, their 4-year-old niece and their 89-year-old grandmother are going to be there. It's remarkable.

LJ: Is your target student audience different than surrounding law schools?

MX: We get asked the question, in some settings, of how can you be suggesting more graduates, more lawyers coming into the system, when the big firms are laying off associates? That's actually one of my very favorite questions because I can look the folks right in the eye and say to them with all due respect to those of you who are in big firms, our graduate students aren't going to large firms. We graduate students who go into the community. And they provide community service as private lawyers, but they also provide community service in nonprofits and in public positions, but they also provide the kind of leadership in the community that a legal training allows them to have, on boards and in community settings, et cetera. Those are our graduates. That's what we train for.

LJ: Will the school be hiring more faculty, and given the economy, isn't it a prime time to do so?

RW: I anticipate that as the student population increases, we will have to do some new hiring, because we are determined to maintain an appropriate student/faculty ratio; the ABA says it should be at 20:1. I also think that because there are certain things that we believe that create the environment of a quality legal education, the size of the classes matter, especially in the core courses, so that may also dictate hiring some people. But in the first year, I think we're going to go through a shakedown, and do not anticipate many hires in the first year. Every day I see inquiries from someone about teaching. And I'm not talking about lawyers who are frustrated in their practices. I'm talking about people who have been part of the legal academy for decades, who are so excited about this idea of a public law school, with a public mission, that they are willing to pull up roots and come to Massachusetts.

LJ: That implies that they're currently out-of-state.

JH: People were coming out of the woodwork from all across the country, saying why is it so hard to make this happen in Massachusetts? How can we help? Everybody we asked said "We'll be there."

LJ: When you send out your marketing materials, what will they say? Who is the audience?

JH: I don't think the audience is any different, per se. I think the message is different. The things that distinguish this school have been, and will be, that it is history-making, it is a special focus on commitment to the community, it's attached to UMass now, it gets all the benefits, the value that UMass adds to this. The UMass brand is very, very powerful all across the country, but especially in Massachusetts, and very much so in this region. You have the indirect support generated by UMass. The revenue of the law school is smaller than UMass-Dartmouth's $4.2 million bookstore, but you get the advantage of a $200 million business. UMass doesn't accrue any additional costs related to the law school, but the law school gets the benefits of very robust information technology infrastructure, financial infrastructure, and backroom operations that it doesn't have to worry about any more.

RW: The law school has always attracted people who are interested in public policy and now that we are a state entity, the opportunities for that kind of discourse just increase tremendously. Exponentially.

MX: The possibilities are endless. It's interesting to watch some of the other law schools stepping up to the plate a little bit more in doing more public internships and more outreach into the community. It creates healthy competition, and that's good for everybody. That was our attitude coming into all of this - that it did not have to be a zero-sum game. Within a marketplace of nine schools, all of them contributing in one way or the other to a certain segment of the marketplace, some of them overlap, we needed to have at least one of those nine outfits to be a public outfit. And that doesn't have to take away from the other eight at all.

LJ: If the school is now self-sustaining, would build-out change that status?

JH: We have the capacity to go to 500 students without making any major investment in facility, and to direct all the investment into faculty, which really has an impact on the quality of education. At a model of 500 students, this school would generate millions of dollars of net revenue.

RW: The footprint of our building is expandable.

LJ: What is left for you to do to bring the school up to ABA standards?

JH: Critics throw out this figure: five years ago they said it would cost $40 million. This year they said it would cost $100 million. The reality is, there has already been $88 million invested.

RW: I am extremely optimistic about the possibility of ABA accreditation. I think that the reason we were unable to receive it 10 years ago was the reserve issue. Since then, various questions have been taken off the table. Questions about the profile of the students have been taken off the table. There were questions about the scholarship of faculty, that hasn't been on the table for years. So I don't think there are any specific roadblocks. What will happen is that we will have to go through a year of shakedown.

LJ: You mentioned that before. Specifically, what is it?

RW: We have two mature institutions that are being brought together and it will take some time to figure out how each does business, and how to maximize the knowledge and resources of each of those institutions. It's going to take a little bit of time to do that, but like everything else, it won't take much longer than a year. Once that is done, everything is pretty much in place to do the evaluation, on whether or not it is time to go to the ABA. The plan calls for this law school to be an ABA law school in a relatively short period of time, and I am extremely optimistic about that.