Invested in success of UMass law school

UMass Law Professor Jeremiah Ho, who teaches the course Contracts, Products Liability, and Remedies, engages with students during a class last academic year. / COURTESY UMASS  DARTMOUTH PHOTOGRAPHICS
UMass Law Professor Jeremiah Ho, who teaches the course Contracts, Products Liability, and Remedies, engages with students during a class last academic year. / COURTESY UMASS DARTMOUTH PHOTOGRAPHICS

Christine Letsche, a third-year student at the University of Massachusetts School of Law Dartmouth, is getting the kind of practical experience there that will help her fulfill a fellowship obligation.

Having received a public-interest-law fellowship that each year covered half her tuition and fees, she is obligated to practice public-interest law for four years after she graduates next spring.

Letsche, 24, of Randolph, Mass., is eager to take on the challenge, and touts her experience at the relatively new, provisionally accredited state law school as invaluable in preparing her for that journey. She’s had two internships already in district attorneys’ offices in Plymouth and Bristol counties and has obtained some courtroom experience.

“People are graduating other law schools learning theory but not necessarily preparing to practice law,” she said. “I was able to stand up [in court], argue bails, [and] interact with a judge, defense attorneys and other lawyers. You’re on your feet and able to argue what you’ve learned in the classroom and incorporate what you’ve learned into real-life situations.”

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Despite carrying a deficit of $3.8 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, which has a $250 million budget, is covering, the law school has experienced stable enrollment, at between 71 and 78 students a year, while law school enrollments nationwide are declining, say law school Dean Mary Lu Bilek and John Hoey, UMass Dartmouth spokesman.

The projected deficit for the upcoming fiscal year is about the same, Hoey said.

“Everything has been on track and we’ve kept our promises on the investments it takes to run a law school: mission and diversity,” Hoey said.

“These are not your average lawyers grinding out corporate work,” added UMass Trustee Margaret D. “Mardee” Xifaras, an attorney with Lang, Xifaras and Bullard of New Bedford. “These are lawyers with a mission and a mandate and experience involving regular folks in their communities.”

That approach sets UMass law apart from competitors in the region, says Xifaras, who was chairwoman of the board for the Southern New England School of Law for 10 years. A commitment to diversity and high-quality education has been maintained in the transition from SNES to UMass Law, she added.

Nationally, entering class size at ABA law schools declined by 15 percent from 44,481 in 2012 to 37,924 in 2014, said Hoey. This coming academic year, 74 students are expected at UMass Law, he said. At full enrollment, the law school would have about 160 full- and part-time students per class, Bilek said. Faculty number 22.

Applications also have been high, most recently numbering 803 for the 2015-16 academic year, she said. And this fall, students of color are expected to comprise up to 45 percent of the student body, perpetuating the school’s commitment to diversity, Bilek said.

Established in February 2010 with a gift of $23 million in assets from the Southern New England School of Law, the school is on track to be accredited in 2016-17, say Bilek and Hoey. Startup costs have included expenses for building a faculty, the law library, technology and academic support, Hoey said.

In 2010, the law school budget was about $5 million; today it’s closer to $9 million, Bilek said. The state annually has appropriated on average between $50 million and $60 million for UMass Dartmouth, but UMass Law has not used any of the state appropriation to fund the school or its programming, Hoey said.

In fact, in the past five years, the law school has returned $2 million to the state through remitted tuition, he noted.

Mary Jeanne Stone, past president of the Bristol County Bar Association, said the reputation of the relatively new law school has improved by “leaps and bounds” compared with its predecessor.

She cited the Justice Bridge program as an example. This past spring, the law-practice incubator expanded from Boston to New Bedford and Taunton, made possible through a three-year, $225,000 grant from Bristol County Savings Bank.

Tom Quinn, Bristol County district attorney, says his office has hired one UMass Law graduate a year as prosecutors for the past three years.

“They are hard-working, reasonably intense for the position and believe in what they’re doing,” he said.

As the only public law school in Massachusetts – at $25,000 a year for in-state students and $32,700 annually for out-of-state students – the school is affordable, Quinn added.

“We’re patient and focused and totally committed in making it a success,” Xifaras contended. “We’ll get a return on the investment … it’s just that it may take a while for people to see it.” •

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