The recent approval of New York state funds to study proposals for three new law schools has raised the hopes of officials at universities in western and central New York and on Long Island who argue that the schools would boost economic development and expand student options.
But several deans of existing law schools and the president of a local bar association have expressed reservations about whether the state really needs to add to the 15 law schools it already has.
With no advance notice and little fanfare, the Legislature included in the budget passed April 2 money for two feasibility studies: $3 million for the State University at Binghamton and $2.25 million for St. John Fisher College, a Roman Catholic institution in Pittsford, near Rochester.
Additionally, it provided $250,000 for "planning" of a law school at SUNY Stony Brook -- to cover expenses such as approvals by the New York State Department of Education and the Board of Regents and accreditation by the American Bar Association. Finally, the Legislature earmarked $45 million for a Stony Brook law school building should one be required.
"This came out of left field, completely unanticipated and unexpected," said Dean Makau W. Mutua of the University at Buffalo Law School. "You would think that when a plan of this magnitude is afoot, the relevant state officials would consult with those of us who have expertise."
"It's pretty silly," said Dean Thomas F. Guernsey of Albany Law School. "The demand isn't there nationally, and clearly, it's not in the state of New York."
Kenneth P. LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, chairman of the state Senate's Higher Education Committee, disputed Guernsey's view.
"People have been saying that for ages," said LaValle, who secured the funding for Stony Brook.
LaValle said some in the legal community questioned the need of Hofstra University School of Law when it was established in 1970, as well as for his own alma mater, Touro Law Center, established in 1980.
Law schools, he added, have "different purposes." For example, nearly all of the schools have established legal clinics staffed by students and supervised by their professors that benefit low-income people.
With approximately 150,000 registered attorneys, New York has more lawyers than any other state. The state Department of Labor estimates that 9,620 new jobs for "lawyers, judges and related workers" will be created in New York from 2004 to 2014, or roughly 1,000 jobs annually.
But according to the Office of Court Administration, an average of 8,092 attorneys are admitted to New York practice each year. And, based on figures from the state Board of Bar Examiners, approximately 3,750 students graduate annually from the state's existing law campuses.
To date, the New York State Bar Association has taken no position on the proposals for three new law schools.
"It's a little too preliminary," said Bernice K. Leber, incoming president of the State Bar and a partner at Arent Fox.
She said, however, that her organization is "very much on top of the proposals." Any official reaction would first involve appointment of a committee to study the issue.
As a policy matter, the American Bar Association takes no position on the merits of establishing a new law school in a given community.
"What we've seen in recent years is that there is not a general need for new lawyers," said Dean William M. Treanor of Fordham University School of Law. However, he would not comment on the specific proposals being considered.
One New York City dean who asked to remain anonymous said that if a new school is to be built, it should be in Manhattan, "where people either live or want to go."
On that point, Treanor disagreed.
"To some extent, it makes sense to put a new law school someplace [upstate] where they're underserved," he said.
Mutua is particularly disturbed by public funds being set aside for St. John Fisher, the Catholic college.
"It is very, very surprising that state dollars would be used to support establishment of a private law school at a private college. It's simply bad public policy," said Mutua. "The only public law school in the SUNY system is Buffalo Law -- and we're underfunded."
Other deans reached by the New York Law Journal declined to comment on the proposals.
One dean with experience in large-scale renovation projects said that a feasibility study for a new law school would consist of roughly $200,000 for architectural plans should renovations or a new building be necessary and marketing studies that could cost "hundreds and hundreds" of hours of consultancy time on questions such as faculty hiring, a financially viable student population, local and regional student application pool and the ability of the law school to place graduates in regional employment.
The dean, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that the amounts approved for St. John Fisher and SUNY Binghamton were liberal allowances.
"I don't think they'll [need] that whole amount," said the dean.
To save on some of the feasibility costs, the dean advised officials at those campuses to consult with counterparts at newly created law campuses around the country for possible templates applicable to their own situations -- the University of Las Vegas, for example, or the University of California at Irvine or Drexel University in Philadelphia.
"There are plans out there they could get their hands on," he said.
St. John Fisher College envisions establishing a law school in downtown Rochester, about seven miles from its main campus, according to Sen. Joseph E. Robach, R-Rochester, who secured the money for the feasibility study, and its president, Donald E. Bain.
Using an existing building, said Robach, "coordinates with reinvigorating the [downtown] core" and is something "the mayor's economic development office supports."
In an op-ed essay published April 27 in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Bain wrote, "[T]he economic impact of 400 students and nearly 100 faculty and administrators in the city on a daily basis would help revitalize downtown."
City and county officials are finalizing plans for "Renaissance Square," a $230 million downtown renewal project that would be the largest such undertaking in the city's history.
Among project sites that some officials see as ripe for law school use is the historic Sibley Building on Main Street, which now houses the Damon City Campus of the Monroe County Community College and the Rochester City Traffic Court.
Bain noted in his essay that Rochester is "the only major upstate city without a law school," a point rebutted in an accompanying essay by Thomas Smith, president of the Monroe County Bar Association.
"Do students graduating from upstate colleges need another option when established law schools exist 70 to 90 miles away in Buffalo, Syracuse and Ithaca?" wrote Smith, a partner at the Rochester office of Naples, Fla.-based Harter, Seacrest & Emery.
"Merely creating a new law school to occupy a low tier in national rankings and repute," Smith wrote, "would be a disservice to students who aspire to the legal profession and would dilute the quality of the local legal community."
The Monroe Bar group has not taken a position on the proposed law school at St. John.
"I'm trying not to totally dismiss the idea," Smith said in an interview, "but I do want to make clear that there are daunting challenges" to establishing a law school.
"Absolutely, we should tread carefully," he said in an interview. "Who wouldn't agree with that? But we're realistic. We won't be tier 1 in only a year or two.
He added, "And I would not proceed unless I was absolutely sure we'd do a first-rate job."
Bain's certainty is based on a 134-page, $25,000 preliminary feasibility study commissioned by the college and conducted by professor Anthony J. Santoro of Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I.
That preliminary study, Bain said, indicated "sufficient student demand to warrant establishing a law school in Rochester. "
He added, "There also appears to be an increased demand for practicing attorneys."
Going forward, said Bain, a former Williamson town justice, "we plan a more comprehensive examination of cost, location, demography and related issues. This next phase will take the form of a blue-ribbon commission likely chaired by a judge and comprised of representatives of the bench and bar, college trustees, faculty, alumni and community leaders."
As for Mutua's objection to giving public funds to a private institution, Robach said it is "commonplace as we move to a technology-based economy" for government dollars to go toward private entities that yield public benefit. For example, he said, the new medical center at the private University of Rochester, which more than 30 years ago decided against establishing a law school, "is now the biggest employer in our region."
Smith is unpersuaded.
"There have been some who've questioned whether this is a good use of state money," he said. "It is unusual. It surprised virtually everyone in the [Rochester] legal community."
Like his legislative counterpart in Rochester, Sen. Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, spoke of a law school on or near the SUNY Binghamton campus as a tonic for local commerce.
"The economic development [aspect] is a tremendous plus," said Libous. "An economic boom is much more needed in our area than maybe the other two areas" -- Rochester and Stony Brook, Long Island.
Unlike Rochester, the legal community of Binghamton has been hearing SUNY Binghamton President Lois B. DeFleur talk for the past two years of developing a law school as a "logical progression" for the university, which has taken pains in the past few decades to beef up law-related fields of study such as economics, political science and philosophy.
In addition to strengthened curricula, DeFleur has told the local bar and bench that the university is expanding into the law-friendly areas of bio-engineering and public affairs.
Among DeFleur's allies are principals of the city's two biggest law firms -- James Orband, managing partner of Hinman Howard & Katell, who also serves on the New York State Board of Law Examiners, and David Gouldin, a name partner at Levene Gouldin & Thompson -- as well as Binghamton City Court Judge Mary Ann Lehman.
A law school, said DeFleur, could be located in either a newly constructed building on the university's 887 acres of rolling grounds along the Susquehanna River or within the university's Downtown Academic Center, a $29 million structure opened last August to house the College of Communications and Public Affairs, among other programs.
LeFleur has filed a formal letter of intent to establish a law school with the SUNY provost, as well as a comprehensive proposal to the necessary SUNY committees. That proposal, along with results of the feasibility study, would then go to the state Education Department and Gov. David A. Paterson.
"There is definitely a need for another publicly supported law program," said Gouldin.
Due to its geographic location midway between the state's two existing public campuses, Buffalo Law to the west and the City University of New York School of Law in Flushing, Queens, which are 426 miles apart, Gouldin said, "Binghamton presents an optimum solution for more affordable law school seats."
Orband suggested that the university's Center for Excellence, which organizes research projects in human genomics, cell biology and biomedicine, would be a natural interdisciplinary partner for an allied law school.
"There's a lot of potential intellectual property law opportunities that could come out of that," said Orband.
Judge Lehman said she hopes to "reap the benefits" of a steady supply of nearby law students who could serve as court interns, thereby gaining practical experience and saving money for Binghamton taxpayers.
"Everything fits nicely," said Libous. A law school at SUNY Binghamton, he added, "is our natural next step."
'SHARP CHANGE' IN STRATEGY
The possibility of a Stony Brook law school was first raised in February, when LaValle suggested to the New York Law Journal that the school could acquire Touro Law Center in central Islip by such a "seamless process" that "Stony Brook could literally take the Touro flag down and put their flag up."
But by early March, talk of merger was put to rest when Bernard Lander, founder and president of Touro College, told a Newsday reporter, "I never met with anybody or spoke to anybody at [Stony Brook]. I had one meeting with Sen. LaValle. Period. I never negotiated with anybody."
When Touro Law Dean Lawrence Raful asked his opinion on merging, Lander further informed the Long Island newspaper, "I said the law school charter is never for sale. Period."
Shirley Strum Kenny, president of SUNY Stony Brook, confirmed that preliminary discussions had taken place but that negotiations never developed. That has caused "a sharp change in our strategy," Kenny said.
"We're on a course to create our own law school," Lavalle said in an interview.
Two feasibility studies have already been conducted on the question of a law school for Stony Brook -- 30 and 20 years ago. Since "much has changed" since then, said Kenny, it would be "prudent" to use the $250,000 allocated in the budget for updated planning purpose.
Kenny estimated "up to a year" would be needed for further planning -- part of which, she said, would address the question of whether New York's legal community requires expansion at this time.
Back in February, LaValle suggested a special purpose for a law school at Stony Brook.
"Stony Brook now has a campus in Southampton," he noted, "and the curriculum there is going to be dealing with the environment, sustainability and community planning. Part of the mission of a public law school, besides providing affordable education, is to be very much involved with the community in solving problems."
Kenny said, "I think we'll move ahead not just as a traditional law school but with our particular strengths in medicine and technology. That's my vision for what would be special for this law school.
She added, "A law school also fits with economic development plans for Long Island."
Since arriving as Stony Brook president in 1994, Kenny has overseen major construction at the university, including the $8 million, 8,300-seat LaValle Stadium, named after the senator; the Charles B. Wang Center for Asian and Asian-American cultures; an expanded Student Activities Center; rehabilitation of all student dormitories, new buildings for the life sciences, humanities and engineering departments; and additions to Stony Brook Hospital.
At the moment, Kenny faces strong criticism from tenured and tenure-track professors, mostly in the College of Arts and Sciences, several dozen of whom have signed a petition expressing "loss of confidence" in her leadership. Among other things, the professors decry "major initiatives undertaken ... at enormous expense" at the same time as a 10 percent reduction in faculty.
Kenny said the petition was "based on faulty information pertaining to the College of Arts and Sciences, not the law school."