Yvonne Abraham

Law school dramatics

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / January 17, 2010

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The Scott and Martha show isn’t the only political drama playing out around here. Here’s another, unfolding largely out of view.

The key players are three of our state’s private law schools, who have joined in a holy battle to protect something they hold dear: the right to snuff out a weaker competitor.

Suffolk University Law School, New England School of Law, and Western New England College of Law are trying to scuttle a University of Massachusetts plan to acquire a small private law school in Dartmouth and turn it into a public one. Tuition at the state law school would be around $24,000. Annual rates at the three private schools, which currently corner the lower end of the market, are $34,000 to $40,000.

The last time UMass and Southern New England School of Law tried this, in 2005, the three schools and others fought it and won. Now, faced with a slightly different plan, the private schools have joined forces again and are making the same arguments.

First, they claim there is no need for a new law school in Massachusetts (failing to appreciate that Southern New England School of Law, the school UMass would absorb, already exists). They say there aren’t enough jobs for the lawyers we have (So, the only people who deserve to compete for those jobs are the ones who choose one of their schools?). They claim UMass can’t do this without costing taxpayers gazillions (more on that later).

The three schools hired a public relations firm, and they’re using Suffolk University trustee John A. Brennan Jr. to lobby against the proposal among state legislators.

Brennan’s name might ring a bell: A Globe investigation last year found that the former state senator was trying to use his no-show position as a Malden Library trustee to double his state pension.

And this is the guy the private law schools put up to complain about wasting taxpayer money?

That’s a pretty good hint that something hinky is going on here. Let’s be real: This is all about avoiding competition. Since the UMass proposal was killed last time, tuition bills at the three schools have soared - and come into remarkable alignment. Suffolk and Western New England have each raised rates by 32 percent over the past five years, to $39,550 and $34,378 respectively. New England Law raised its rates a whopping 71 percent, to $38,500. If you think that’s a coincidence, I can sell you a law degree right now for 50 bucks.

On the face of it, the UMass Dartmouth plan seems like a pretty good idea.

Though the three privates give generous scholarships, a public school would welcome an even broader student body. Lower tuition costs might enable more grads to be able to afford to go into public service. And the law school is in a part of the state where many who need those services live.

Opponents are right about a few things, however. This process has been ultra-political: The proposal has been pushed by influential South Coast residents more interested in economic development than education, and supported by a governor who needs the region’s voters this election year.

The private law schools have experts who say it will take $100 million to get a UMass law school accredited, and that because UMass is exaggerating its ability to up enrollment and collect more tuition, taxpayers will have to prop it up. UMass has its own experts, who say the cost will be closer to $16 million, and that taxpayers won’t pay an extra dime.

It’s the Board of Higher Education’s job to sort through the claims. They’ll say whether the state law school lives or dies on Feb. 2. But there’s one clear sign a UMass law school might thrive if given a chance: how hard the three private schools are working to kill it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at