Pit Stop #50: Massachusetts School of Law

My own three years of law school weren’t exactly a picnic. I lived in a tiny, dark studio apartment, my girlfriend broke up with me, and I gained twenty pounds sitting around studying like a maniac. So you might suspect that visiting The Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, MA would be a triggering event. Not even close! 

For one thing, I’m always deeply proud when I get to experience the extraordinary diversity of institutions the New England Commission accredits. A few of our schools are what we refer to as “specialty” institutions, meaning they offer a degree in just one field of study rather than the range of degrees that most colleges or universities offer. That specialty label applies to MSLAW, setting it apart, but MSLAW is also unique among law schools in virtually every way imaginable. 

I had the privilege of meeting Dean Michael Coyne when he appeared before the Commission this past November as part of MSLAW’s successful comprehensive evaluation which takes place every ten years. Michael has been at MSLAW for almost 33 years and Dean for eight. There is no more passionate advocate for their institution than Michael, and even that is an understatement. For all his tenure, he has been fighting on behalf of his school against the legal establishment, in particular the American Bar Association, which has refused to accredit MSLAW for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons historically has been the school’s refusal to require its applicants to take the LSAT. (For those of you who follow such things, you know this requirement has been the subject of great debate recently, even within the ABA.) The ABA’s Council of Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has been pushing to eliminate the LSAT requirement since 2017 and in November 2022, it approved dropping the requirement, noting that no other professional school accreditor requires an admission test. Despite that recommendation, the ABA’s House of Delegates this February rejected that change. And so the battle rages on. 

At MSLAW, however, there is no such dispute; it will continue, as it has for decades, to not require the test for admission. Dean Coyne points out that this policy has allowed MSLAW to become one of the most diverse law schools in the country. As a point of difference, the percentage of Black law students in ABA-accredited law schools is below 8%, while at MSLAW it is almost 23%. But there’s a lot more to know about MSLAW than its fight with the ABA. 

Accredited by NECHE since 1997, MSLAW is a small school, enrolling just over 300 students, more than half of whom work full-time and attend school part-time at night. The legal education at MSLAW is focused on training its students to practice law, with most faculty being practicing attorneys rather than academics. As a result of the lack of ABA accreditation, graduates can face challenges being certified to practice in a number of states, but that’s not the case in Massachusetts nor in most other New England states, where all that’s needed to practice is to pass the bar. 70% of MSLAW grads pass the bar within two years of graduation. Dean Coyne acknowledges that this rate is lower than some other Massachusetts law schools, but given the underserved population the law school attracts and the fact most students are working adults, that is not a complete surprise…and something the school is dedicated to improving.

MSLAW is also the most affordable law school in the state, with full-time tuition set at $26,000 a year.

I graduated law school in 1978 and was a civil rights lawyer for nearly a decade in Philadelphia before my career headed in a very different direction. Despite my downer of a law school experience, I loved being an attorney and remain fascinated by the law and legal training, so my conversation with Dean Coyne was particularly compelling. We began with a bit of a history lesson, back to the founding of MSLAW in 1988. 

The founding Dean, Larry Velvel, is the only Dean besides Coyne that the law school has ever had. Velvel was committed to creating an institution like no other in America, where law would be taught by lawyers, tuition was affordable, and the student body represented the actual population of the Commonwealth. These ideas were so radical, the book that recounts the history of MSLAW is titled “Against the Tide.”  

Dean Velvel, fighting the righteous fight.

As we talked about Dean Velvel and those working alongside him (including the 11 students who made up MSLAW’s inaugural class), it became clear this was a cause, not just an attempt to try something different. Indeed, it was that sense of mission that led the school into its pitched battle with the ABA. A provision in the ABA’s by-laws allows the association to grant a variation to select experimental institutions, even if they don’t meet all the requirements of affiliation, and Velvel and the Board fully expected that this would be their route to ABA recognition. Turns out, that never happened and as far as Dean Coyne knows, more than forty years later, the ABA has never granted any institution such a waiver. 

From MSLAW to the courtroom…

After plenty of litigation and a consent decree, the bottom line is that MSLAW remains unaccredited by the ABA. When I asked whether it would ever be the school’s desire to change that, Micheal responded that he couldn’t imagine it, since there were still certain ABA-imposed requirements that would force the school to become too expensive. For example, the ABA does not allow an institution to count administrators who also teach when it determines the sufficiency of faculty — undercutting the number of folks like Dean Coyne, who teach a full-time load in addition to his administrative responsibilities, as do most other MSLAW administrators. Moreover, since MSLAW grads can practice in most New England states once they pass the bar, Coyne is not sure that the value added would be worth the cost.

I was quite impressed and inspired by my visit to MSLAW and its unique perspective on teaching. It might even have prompted me to reevaluate my own law school saga … and binge-watch a bit of Law & Order. 

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