It was on a perfect late summer morning in Manhattan last year, during the third week of classes at New York Law School, when the catastrophe called Sept. 11 happened. Sept. 11 is something like the JFK assassination — everyone remembers in the minutest detail where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news — but those at New York Law School have especially potent memories.

The school sits in the financial and legal heart of the city, less than 10 blocks from the site of the World Trade Center towers. Very soon after the attacks, it became a place for firefighters and police officers to recover between shifts, as well as an outpost for CNN’s round-the-clock coverage. For two weeks the school was shuttered, and when it reopened, there wasn’t even the illusion of normality. Trains and subways were hit-or-miss, as were power and communications. Asbestos and benzene from the fallen towers choked the air. Several students in the evening division did day duty as firefighters and cops — one of them lost 34 co-workers. Soldiers armed with machine guns demanded that anyone venturing into the area show an ID, making it feel precisely like a war zone.

Immediately after the planes hit, NYLS’ dean, Richard Matasar, moved quickly from one half-empty classroom to the next, bringing the grim news. Like an anxious parent, he stood at the doorway of 57 Worth St., hugging beleaguered students and faculty as they straggled in for shelter. Before the communications network crashed, he worked the phones, trying to locate anyone from the school who might have been trapped in the towers. To his immense relief, nobody from the school was lost.

During the weeks that followed, NYLS provided office space for displaced attorneys and community organizations, helped local shoe stores and barber shops handle their mounting debt problems, and pulled together a coalition of law schools to catalogue and coordinate volunteer responses from the legal community. While the faculty decided to make up all the lost classes — that much would be business as usual — they stopped being sticklers about attendance and became grief counselors. Students were allowed to decide, after finishing their final exams, whether to take those courses pass-fail; many took up that offer. The fateful tenure clock for junior faculty was stopped for a semester. Many people had a hard time concentrating on the humdrum of getting and giving a legal education. Why teach or study law in lawless times, people were asking themselves. And why, more pointedly, continue the sometimes Sisyphean task of trying to revive New York Law School?

Only 14 months before disaster struck, Rick Matasar had formally come on board to replace the retiring dean, Harry Wellington. His mission: turn around a struggling law school. In a city with powerhouse law schools like Columbia and New York University, NYLS had been lagging. It was the “safe” school for students who couldn’t get in anyplace else. A third of its graduates were failing the bar exam, and only 70 percent of them found jobs — the worst in the state in both these categories. By the end of his first year, Matasar had the faculty dreaming about what he called “the Good Life” — an honors program for talented students; an infusion of new colleagues to lighten the teaching load; affiliations with nearby universities; and “a new, better name.” Sept. 11 temporarily made him a crisis manager, but now he’s back on course — trying to make NYLS a school where exciting things are going on.

The title of Matasar’s Sept. 6, 2000, dean’s memo to the faculty and staff was innocuous enough: “Setting the Agenda.” But the tone of the message, written just two months after he formally took over the NYLS dean’s job, was bracing.

“Who or what is New York Law School?” the memo begins — a fair question, since almost everyone confuses the school with its infinitely better known and more successful neighbor, NYU. Though it’s just a chip shot from the city’s courts and an easy walk to the nation’s premier corporate law firms, very few of the judges in those courts or the partners in those firms are NYLS alumni. There are several nationally known scholars on the faculty, but the students are another story. There are a lot of them — nearly 1,400 — because tuition is the main source of revenue, and the bottom quarter of the class is an embarrassment. If things are going to improve, Matasar wrote, NYLS has to “find a mission, proclaim it to the world, and succeed in taking a special place in the education market.”

This isn’t how law school deans usually talk. Legal education has changed startlingly little in the century and a quarter since Christopher Langdell began to use the case method, rather than the traditional lecture, at Harvard. From Professor Langdell to “The Paper Chase” to today — walk into almost any first-year law school classroom in the land and a Socrates wannabe is likely presiding. The subjects of study aren’t very different either, even though the courses that comprise the first-year curriculum — property, torts, contracts and the like — mask the blurring of these once-distinct fields. Lip service, but little real attention, is paid to legal writing, oral argument or clinical practice. And there’s scant encouragement for students to specialize in subfields like tax law or intellectual property.

Matasar is that rare breed among law school deans: an ardent innovator. Before coming to NYLS, he’d made waves as dean at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and, later, the University of Florida College of Law. At Chicago-Kent, he initiated “majors” in environmental law and dispute resolution and implemented what’s believed to be the first “e-law” section in the nation. At the University of Florida, he opened the Legal Technology Institute, which consults with lawyers and judges, earning substantial revenue and generating good publicity because of its outreach. “We talk the talk at law schools,” he told a reporter from the Gainesville Sun. “Now, we really walk the walk. … We’re going to have the resources of the law school linked directly to people who are practicing law.”

Less than three years into his deanship at Florida, however, Matasar was pushed out in a brouhaha over the renaming of the law school. He had secured a $10 million gift, the biggest in the university’s history, from a flamboyant litigator named Fredric Levin. But after some Gator alums assailed the name change, the university’s president denied that he’d approved the renaming. Matasar resigned, a principled act that won him the admiration of law school deans elsewhere — and left him looking for work.

Chicago-Kent has a solid reputation, especially in environmental law, and the University of Florida is among the nation’s top 50 schools in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings. In coming to New York Law School, Rick Matasar was taking a big downward step.

No one at NYLS harbored the illusion that the school was competing with Columbia, NYU, or even Fordham Law School, but Matasar’s memo showed how bad things really were. In head-to-head competition, 12 out of 13 applicants rejected NYLS for local rivals like St. John’s and Cardozo, which, the NYLS faculty believed, offered an inferior legal education. In less than a decade the school had sunk from second to fourth tier — the bottom — in the U.S. News rankings. “When Rick distributed that data,” says NYLS professor Arthur Leonard, “he made us confront reality.”

A month after sending out his missive, Matasar brought the faculty together for a daylong retreat. Then, and in several weekend sessions during the winter and spring, he encouraged them to engage in pie-in-the-sky thinking about “the Good Life.” Beneath their habitually cynical professorial veneers, a lot of altruists are teaching at NYLS. “Everyone shouldn’t be sitting around the campfire, singing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Matasar told me in an interview. “ But you can’t have a faculty where most people operate as independent contractors.”

Although a law professor’s career depends mainly on scholarship and teaching, Matasar convinced many faculty members to think more broadly about the school. That process, says labor law professor Seth Harris, “enrolled people who hadn’t been persuaded about the breadth of the enterprise they were going to be engaged in.” Harris was one professor who became deeply involved in community-building, working hundreds of hours to develop a new certificate program in labor law. Why did he do it? “This is my home — I want it to improve,” he says. “It’s like buying NYLS stock at 10, in the hope that the stock will rise. Besides, I’m still an altruist: I want the school to turn out better students, and for those students to improve society.”

The search for better students drives many of the initiatives that Matasar and the faculty have just launched. If things had gone according to design, the dreaming and planning would have segued into implementation last year, but Sept. 11 pushed everything back a semester. Now, though, the first group of students has been admitted to an honors program, which entices top-ranking applicants — students who otherwise wouldn’t consider enrolling in NYLS — with merit scholarships and perks like summer clerkships, research opportunities and a guaranteed place on the law review. The Justice Action Center, headed by American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen, is aimed at reformist-minded students, and a Media Law Center is pitched at those interested in the hot IP area. Breaking with other schools, NYLS is also admitting up to 50 students who haven’t taken the LSAT. (The dean wanted to junk the LSAT requirement entirely, but the faculty and American Bar Association accreditors turned him down. These specially admitted students must take the test during their first year.)

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, those in the bottom quarter of the class will be channeled into bread-and-butter courses, then required to stay on for an extra semester of bar-exam-oriented classes. Other ventures begun in the past two years — including an online course in mental health law, LL.M. programs in taxation and media studies, and joint ventures with other schools — are designed to deliver high-quality legal education, filling a niche and promoting the NYLS brand.

“What’s happening now is a high-wire act,” says Harry Wellington, Matasar’s predecessor. “I can’t think of anyone else who can do it.” Art Leonard agrees: “It’s not easy being a faculty member at a Rick Matasar�run law school” because he pushes professors to reconsider what they, and the school, are doing. But to Randolph Jonakait, a longtime faculty member and the inside candidate for Matasar’s job, these changes are mostly sound and fury. “Rick throws out a thousand ideas, but doesn’t follow up on them, doesn’t think things through.”

Former dean Wellington was admired by many faculty members for nurturing their scholarly aspirations, but he was otherwise largely invisible. The joke among students was that they’d see him twice — when they enrolled and when they graduated. By contrast, Matasar seems omnipresent. He answers his e-mail promptly and keeps his office door open. At regular “town meetings” he pitches the message that the school is improving, while letting students know he believes in tougher admissions standards. “If you’re one of those students who’s not making it,” he says, “you have to step up to the plate.”

To the outside world, Matasar also sells an image of a school on the move. “It’s like building a building while you’re designing it,” marvels Professor William LaPiana. “We’re putting out the propaganda while we’re trying to make it work.” Will anyone notice? Skeptical Jonakait recalls a dinner with a senior partner at a Wall Street firm whose knowledge of the New York law schools began with Columbia and ended with NYU. “The pecking order in New York is pretty fixed,” he says.

Matasar has another take: “If all we care about is our ranking, we better stop our conversation now. There’s only so much we can do to change the pecking order. But we can create a niche outside the hierarchy, as the place where you do cool things.” Acts of creation require money — for the research centers, the honors program and all the other ideas that have been bruited. A new building is critical, the dean says, noting that the lack of dormitory space has discouraged applicants: “If we don’t build it, they won’t come.” Yet what had been NYLS’ biggest asset, its location, has turned into a question mark. The uncertain future of the World Trade Center site has made investors nervous, putting a hold on a $200 million project that combines new classrooms, a bigger library, and student dorms with rental apartments.

Still, there’s considerable good news to report. Despite a depressed economy, alumni gave more money last year than ever before. More than 93 percent of the class of 2001 got jobs. A 25 percent increase in applications (a figure comparable to other law schools) has permitted NYLS to be more selective, and an unprecedented proportion of the best applicants are enrolling. Although in the aftermath of Sept. 11 some parents wanted their children closer to home, there’s been no rush to transfer out. U.S. News has taken note: New York Law School has been restored to the third tier.

This past April the school cancelled classes for Faculty Presentation Day — a Matasar innovation. Some faculty members worried that there’d be empty lecture rooms, but more than a quarter of the students came to hear professors, and some law students as well, discuss “legal issues of our time.” In a school where anti-intellectualism has been a concern, professors were, for the first time, sharing the intellectual enterprise with their students.

“For whatever hucksterism portion of me that exists,” Matasar says — then adds, with a grin, “and that’s a lot — this is the bottom line: making the world a better place through law. This capacity to look for ideas, to find contingently right answers: that’s what the money goes to support, that’s the best thing about all of us.” If Matasar can turn New York Law School from a bottom feeder into a cutting-edge school, deans and professors elsewhere, to say nothing of venturesome would-be lawyers, will take notice. This experiment on the fringes of Ground Zero just might make a difference in how legal education is understood.

David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, at the University of California, Berkeley. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation. A longer version will be included in his forthcoming book, “Higher Education Goes to Market.”