The University of Massachusetts School of Law in Dartmouth announced Tuesday that it has received full accreditation by the American Bar Association, a milestone for the six-year-old school that has struggled with growing pains.
UMass officials said they believe its new status will propel the state’s first public law school, which has faced lackluster enrollment and ongoing financial issues, toward greater success and help in its mission to produce attorneys focused on social justice.
“For those of us concerned about protecting the rights of all residents of the Commonwealth, UMass Law will play a key role in that effort moving forward,” said UMass President Martin T. Meehan.
The school received provisional accreditation in 2012. After a visit in March and several rounds of meetings this fall, the bar association awarded full accreditation Dec. 2. Most states require students to have graduated from an accredited law school to become licensed, and the status is seen as a general seal of approval in the law education industry.
The school’s history has been fraught with controversy, even before UMass took over Southern New England School of Law in 2010.
At the time, private law schools in Boston, including Suffolk University and New England School of Law, lobbied against the proposal, saying the state did not need a new law school or more lawyers. They also insisted the school would cost taxpayers millions, a promise which has been broken.
The school operates on about $9.3 million annually and is projected to run a $3.3 million deficit this year, down from $3.8 million last year. Since UMass took over the law school in 2010, the subsidy has totaled $15.3 million, according to UMass.
In its effort to gain accreditation, the law school became more selective and improved its bar exam pass rates. The bar pass rate for the July 2016 exam was 69 percent, an increase of 9 percentage points over the prior year, according to Eric Mitnick, dean of the law school.
The school depends financially on UMass Dartmouth’s main campus and now says it will take until fiscal year 2022 to break even, instead of 2018 as originally estimated.
To break even in 2022, Mitnick said Tuesday, it will need to increase the size of each year’s incoming class to about 130 by 2020. This year the incoming class was 66 students, about half from Massachusetts, the dean said. The school has 186 students, down from 213 last year.
To meet its enrollment goal, the law school hopes to increase the number of applications from around 800 this fall to around 1,000 three years from now, and increase the number of accepted students who attend from 14 percent to 22 percent.
Those aims are lofty in an era of declining law school applications and fewer jobs for those with the degree.
“But you have to keep in mind we are half the price of every other law school in the Commonwealth, and we offer an access to a justice mission that I think is somewhat unique,” Mitnick said. In-state tuition is $26,466, about half the cost of private law schools.
Mitnick said he now plans to focus on marketing the school and expanding its hands-on legal training, including a program in the spring called “human rights at home” that will focus on domestic violence.
The school also has a successful immigration law program and two years ago established a program called Justice Bridge that provides low-cost legal assistance to low-income people in Boston and New Bedford and has handled 3,500 cases.
The dean said the school has no plans to move out of Dartmouth. It is, however, exploring options for opening satellite locations at other UMass campuses around the state.Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.