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Later this spring, Massachusetts lawmakers will be asked to join a heated debate making its way through the law school community to decide whether Massachusetts should have a public law school. A proposal for the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth to absorb the struggling Southern New England School of Law, located in North Dartmouth, Mass., just down the road from the southeastern Massachusetts university campus, is expected to come before the state Legislature in a few weeks. Proponents say their proposed $2.5 million annual subsidy from the Massachusetts Commonwealth, and a plan to use tuition to pay operating costs rather than turning it back to the state’s General Fund, is a fraction of the tens of millions of dollars it would take to build a new law school. “This is a remarkable opportunity to bring on a public law school for very short dollars,” said New Bedford, Mass., attorney Margaret D. Xifaras, chairwoman of Southern New England’s board of trustees. “We have a 20-year-old institution with a solid track record, a facility already there. And in many respects, we’re already affiliated with UMass-Dartmouth through the JD-MBA program and the schools’ libraries.” More importantly, say Xifaras and the law school’s dean, Robert V. Ward Jr., the proposal is focused on the $11,500 annual tuition that would be charged at the proposed UMass law school, allowing its graduates to begin public service careers or hometown practices without the overwhelming burden of $60,000 to $80,000 in law school debt. That compares to a range of yearly law school tuitions in Massachusetts from $17,300 at New England School of Law in Boston up to nearly $26,000 at Harvard University Law School. The Massachusetts School of Law in Andover charges $12,300 a year. But like Southern New England School of Law, it isn’t accredited by the American Bar Association, which limits its graduates in where they can practice law. “This is the right time, the right place and we’re doing it for the right reasons,” said Ward, acknowledging an opposition that sees the move by UMass as little more than a “bailout” for a financially strapped law school whose class size has dropped from nearly 400 in the mid-1990s to 150 currently. “There’s going to be resistance,” said Ward, “but anything that’s worth fighting for shouldn’t be easy.” DO WE NEED MORE LAWYERS? For UMass-Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack, the benefits of the plan are threefold. A lower-cost legal education, she said, would allow more working-class students to attend law school. It also would enable more students to staff public-service jobs needed to meet the growing legal needs of the poor, which legal aid providers say has reached a critical level. In addition, MacCormack said it would create a focus on public legal service through a research institute at the university. “We could provide an opportunity to respond to some of those critical public needs, as well as the ability for all qualified students to attend law school,” said MacCormack, expecting a battle similar to the one fought by private medical schools against the addition of the UMass Medical Center in Worcester a generation ago. “They say law school enrollments are going down, but there may be another pool of [potential] students, who are not going to apply because of cost issues,” said MacCormack. The opposition is ready to meet all those arguments, however. In a recent letter to the Boston Herald, former Massachusetts Bar Association President Camille F. Sarrouf blasted the plan to address unmet legal needs of the poor by starting a UMass law school. “Educating more lawyers is not the answer, nor is the diversion of state funding to create a public law school,” wrote Sarrouf, of Sarrouf, Tarricone & Flemming in Boston. “We should fund our existing public agencies for legal services and not bail out law schools that now face the decline in students caused by the overabundance of lawyers.” Representatives of the state’s regional law schools, such as New England School of Law in Boston and Western New England School of Law in Springfield, Mass., say another law school isn’t needed in a state that already boasts nine private ones, including Southern New England. Law schools in general face a smaller pool of qualified applicants compared to a decade ago, they point out. About 99,000 people applied to law schools for the 1990-91 academic year, compared to 67,500 applicants in 1998-99, according to a position paper written by New England School of Law Dean John F. O’Brien, in opposition to the public law school plan. “Most law schools have reduced the size of their entering classes because there are not enough qualified students to go around anymore,” said O’Brien. “We used to have 220 entering, and now we’re down to 185. And we give $2 million a year in scholarship money, so if you qualify, you’re in.” “To suggest there’s some ‘phantom’ pool of students out there is nonsense,” he added. “The state should give each law school scholarship money to serve the same phantom population they’re talking about.” Donald J. Dunn, dean of Western New England School of Law, said the figures put forward with the public law school plan “is far understating the cost associated with it.” “People are also missing the point that, whether it is a public or a private institution, the costs are the same to educate a student. It’s still coming out of somebody’s pocket,” he said, citing the cost to taxpayers of maintaining a major addition to its state university system. THE LAW SCHOOL IS NOT CLOSING But for people like Southern New England’s alumni association President David J. Dennis, who got his law degree in 1995 when the law school was at its highest enrollment, the merge “would be a great marriage.” “We’d have more resources, additional talent, and hopefully a prelude to being ABA-accredited,” said Dennis, whose law degree helped him launch the nonprofit Cambodian Legal Resources Development Center out of Fall River, Mass. “If you practice locally, the ABA recognition doesn’t mean that much. The education doesn’t change — being turned down [by the ABA] was not a question of the quality of Southern New England’s program. But you’re limited in your ability to attract students.” MacCormack said discussions with the ABA — which has denied accreditation to Southern New England because of its lack of resources and future “sustainability” on its own — have indicated the chances of accreditation would be approved with the weight of a university system behind the law school. If approval for the public law school isn’t given by the Legislature, Ward said he’d try to broaden his students’ career options by pressing other New England states for permission to let his students take their bar exams, as they may now in Connecticut and New Hampshire. He hopes also to increase tutoring and mentoring programs so the pass rates on the Massachusetts bar exam — 25 percent passed in 1999 and 46 percent passed in 2000 — will improve. For as long as the law school remains open — “We’re not going anywhere,” Ward insisted — the one thing that will increase is its alumni. Since the law school began in 1981, in a storefront location with only a few dozen students, that group has grown to about 600, which could be a significant lobbying force in the upcoming campaign for a UMass law school. “If asked,” said Dennis, “I’m sure the alumni would be happy to do whatever we can to help.”

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