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David Asks Goliath To Certify His Sling

ONE evening last week, about 50 people - men and women from 20-something to 50-something - sat on the wooden benches of a simulated courtroom at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, Mass. They had come for one of the periodic open houses that the young law school throws for prospective students.

Unlike the practice courtrooms in many law schools, nondescript affairs with the featureless design and ambience of modern courthouses, MSL's court has a pleasingly 19th-century look and feel. This isn't just theme-park ``authenticity,'' though: Learning that the old courthouse in Chelsea, Mass., was to be demolished, MSL students recently dismantled the court's bench, railings, bookcases, and gallery and reassembled them in their school.

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The episode perfectly captures the spirit of the school - its low-budget resourcefulness, its students' enthusiasm, and the staunch set of its jaw against the current state of legal education.

According to Dean Lawrence Velvel, MSL was founded in 1988 for three nontraditional reasons: to provide legal education to qualified lower-income, minority, and other students who don't fit the usual law-school admissions profile; to make legal education affordable (MSL's annual tuition is $9,000, contrasted to a median tuition of $16,000 for law schools in New England); and to integrate hands-on legal experience more fully into the law-school curriculum.

In just five years, MSL's enrollment has grown from 90 to more than 800 full- and part-time students (average age, 38).

Dean Velvel, a former law professor and hardball litigator, is a man of Churchillian build and fiery defiance. That's good, because MSL will need all the doggedness it can muster. Last month the school filed an antitrust suit against the giant American Bar Association after the ABA rejected MSL's application for accreditation.

For MSL, much is at stake. Its graduates can take the Massachusetts bar exam - since MSL is accredited by the state - and, if they pass, can practice law in the state. (In 42 states, however, only graduates of ABA-approved law schools can even sit for the bar exam.) But they can't practice in other states, and MSL students can't transfer to or do postgraduate work at ABA-approved law schools. These restrictions, the school says, put it at a competitive disadvantage.

The ABA's accrediting arm rebuffed MSL because, an inspection team said, the school failed to meet certain ABA standards. But in its lawsuit charging the ABA with restraint of trade, MSL says the relevant standards have nothing to do with the quality of legal education. Rather, the school says, most of them are trade-union standards intended to improve the pay, benefits, and working conditions of law-school professors and librarians - such as guidelines on faculty members' salaries, teaching hours, sabbaticals, and administrative duties.

The ABA standards also limit the use of practicing lawyers as adjunct professors. MSL relies on adjunct professors both to keep its payroll down and to teach practical lawyering skills.

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According to Velvel, if MSL raised faculty salaries, hired more full-time professors, and took other steps to satisfy the ABA standards, the resulting tuition increases would put the school out of reach of the targeted student population, without improving the legal education it provides.

Non-ABA-approved law schools like MSL, Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, Calif., and John Marshall Law School in Atlanta do more than just serve law students who are ``pulling themselves up by their bootstraps,'' in Velvel's words. Many of their graduates, whether of necessity or by choice, return to their working-class or poor communities where, hanging out a shingle or joining a small law firm, they serve chronically underrepresented legal consumers like low-income people, minorities, the elderly, and small businesses.

Whether or not the ABA inspection process at MSL was, as Velvel insists, shot through with prejudgments and conflicts of interest, one has to wonder if the ABA accreditation machinery - dominated by traditionalists and law-school insiders - is frozen into old ways of thinking about legal education.

Some members of the ABA itself are asking similar questions. Last year an ABA commission condemned the ``gap'' between theory-heavy legal education and the skills required of practicing lawyers. Perhaps the MSL lawsuit is a straw in the wind.

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