DARTMOUTH — When UMass took over a tiny private law school in 2010, the controversial deal came with a promise to the public: Taxpayer money would not be used to pay for it, and the state would even earn a profit as enrollment was projected to more than double by 2017.
But with many law schools nationwide decimated by the recession, the state’s first public law school is struggling to gain its footing, according to a Globe review.
The University of Massachusetts School of Law has a mounting deficit, which hit $3.8 million last fiscal year, a gap expected to widen next year. UMass Dartmouth is picking up the bill for now, that school said.
The law school for now has scrapped plans to increase enrollment and instead decided to cut the size of its incoming class by a third, to 72 students. In addition, the school is not fully accredited by the American Bar Association, a generally accepted stamp of approval in the field.
Incoming UMass president Martin T. Meehan pledged last week to improve the school and market it more effectively, and the school’s dean, Mary Lu Bilek, is confident it will succeed. Bilek is passionate about the school’s mission to offer an affordable legal education to a diverse student body and to educate the next generation of public service lawyers.
“These are people who have had experience in the world and really want to be lawyers,” she said.
UMass took over Southern New England School of Law after political opposition quashed a similar attempt in 2005. Private law schools in Boston, including Suffolk University and New England School of Law, lobbied against the proposal both times, saying the state did not need a new law school or more lawyers. They also insisted the school would cost taxpayers millions.
But with the support of then-Governor Deval Patrick and at the urging of his South Coast supporters, UMass took over the failing school in February 2010, absorbing a purported $23 million in assets, including the law school building, in an industrial park three miles from the UMass Dartmouth campus.
UMass also inherited the burden of trying to get the law school accredited. The school gained provisional ABA accreditation in 2012 and hopes to be in full standing by 2017, Bilek said.
Full accreditation depends, in part, on financial stability. To address that concern, outgoing UMass president Robert L. Caret has written three letters to the bar association, assuring officials that UMass will support the law school until it is solvent.
“There has been a sea change in legal education since UMass Law School was created,” Caret wrote in a 2014 letter to the ABA. “This has meant that the original fiscal projection model is clearly not sustainable.”
Bar exam passage rates at the law school, another barometer of success, have fluctuated since UMass took over — the rate was 74 percent in 2011, then dipped to 54 percent the next year before rising to 70 percent in 2013, according to the most recent data available. The average bar passage rate in Massachusetts is 88 percent.
Of last year’s 81 graduates, 65 got jobs, including 31 jobs that require bar passage, according to the ABA. That is a 12 percent increase over the previous year’s class.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, school supporters say. The law school was created with a noble mission: To make a doctor of laws degree affordable, and to educate people who will use their degrees to help people who direly need legal services.
Bilek calls it “making sure that not only people born with silver spoons in their mouths are making the law.”
The curriculum is hands-on, focused on how lawyers work in court, manage projects, and collaborate. Students must complete an internship and perform 30 hours of pro-bono legal work before graduation. The school has created a program where recent graduates represent real clients in matters ranging from eviction to immigration to bankruptcy.
“It is a practical approach,” Bilek said.
The average age of students at UMass Law is 28, and they often bring life and work experience that deepens classroom discussion.
Second-year student Felicia Carboni, 27, of Wareham, studied custody cases where children are removed from their parents. As a mother of one (soon to be two), Carboni imagined what it would be like to have her son taken away, only to have to wait 18 months for a backlogged court to hear the case. “There’s a little bit of a different perspective when you have actual children,” she said on the campus Thursday.
Students say the school’s low tuition draws them to UMass, and what they describe as the supportive atmosphere and flexible professors make them stay. Tuition is $24,000 for in-state students, and $32,000 for those from outside Massachusetts. Suffolk, by comparison, costs $46,000.
UMass Law runs on about $9.3 million annually, and last year brought in $5.5 million in revenue, according to data provided by the university. In 2010, UMass projected the school would have developed a $3 million surplus by last year, but that has not happened.
The school has adjusted its goals, and now expects to be self-sufficient when it increases its enrollment to 450, hopefully by 2018. This year it has 213 students.
Bilek is frank about how UMass is trying to bolster its academic profile, by admitting fewer students and those with higher LSAT scores, and by offering more scholarships. Last year it spent $1.3 million on scholarships for its 268 students.
The increase in LSAT scores at UMass has put the school on par with Suffolk and other local schools, where scores have declined slightly over the past few years. Higher LSATs are intended to translate into better bar passage rates, although pass rates at the peer schools are still higher.
As UMass Law attempts to boost its profile to secure accreditation, it is also seeking to ensure the student body remains diverse. In 2013, half of students were women and 24 percent were minorities, according to UMass.
And while most law schools, including those in Boston, have seen double-digit declines in applications in recent years, UMass’s applications grew 70 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to the ABA. In addition, applications from out-of-state students are up 64 percent, Bilek said, which brings extra energy to campus.
“You may not get people to drive down here from Boston, but there are people who will move here from Texas,” she said.