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Let Deliberations Begin

July 21, 2008

By Marc Parry, Albany Times Union, N.Y.

Jul. 21–BINGHAMTON — Proposals to establish three new law schools in New York are pitting colleges against each other in a statewide debate that touches on money, politics and prestige.

The end result may be a significant expansion of choices for aspiring attorneys upstate, where Buffalo claims the only low-cost public law school north of New York City.

Here in the Southern Tier 140 miles southwest of Albany, one of SUNY’s most prestigious universities wants to change that. So do local officials who hope to see suburban Binghamton University expand a downtown presence that, beyond students drinking in bars, it lacked until a $29 million academic center opened last year near the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers.

Binghamton’s ambitions come as SUNY rival Stony Brook in Long Island and the private St. John Fisher College in Rochester are both advancing their own law school plans. State lawmakers appropriated more than $50 million toward the three projects.

Is this law school overload?

Yes, argue some of the established players in a state that already has 15 law schools and the nation’s largest population of lawyers — 150,000. The criticism is especially sharp in Albany, whose hotels will bustle this month with the summer ritual of thousands of graduates in town for the bar exam.

Here’s the critics’ case coming out of Albany and SUNY Buffalo’s law schools: The field is saturated, with 9,267 new lawyers admitted in the state last year but only 9,260 new jobs for lawyers expected over the next six years. Law school applications are declining nationally. The number of high school graduates is projected to shrink. More schools means accepting weaker students.

Terrible. Silly. Irrational. These are the labels that E. Stewart Jones, chairman of the board of trustees at Albany Law School, used to describe the plan. The Troy attorney called the situation a “political boondoggle” driven by ego and self-aggrandizement and lawmakers seeking to garner favor with constituents.

“This is an age-old game where people take state money — government funding — and create monuments that are not necessary,” Jones said.

The game’s context is a highly competitive environment for legal education. A largely regional business went national with the advent of law school rankings like U.S. News & World Report’s, said Albany Law Dean Thomas Guernsey.

Now aspiring lawyers in, say, Utica or Clifton Park are likely to take the LSAT exam, buy the magazine and check where their scores will get them in. That means Guernsey has to compete on a national level just to maintain Albany Law’s traditional upstate base.

Albany Law School has enjoyed recent success in luring prominent professors and out-of-state applications, but the private school remains ranked in the third tier. Buffalo, meanwhile, has skidded from No. 77 in the country last year to No. 100.

Buffalo Law Dean Makau Mutua called the school “chronically underfunded” in an e-mail to the Times Union declaring his “unequivocal opposition to more law schools within the state.”

“One would think that investing in Buffalo Law School, rather than expending scarce public resources to create more law schools during a time of recession, would be the better public policy,” he wrote.

Binghamton Provost Mary Ann Swain doesn’t see it that way.

Swain oversees law school planning from her office overlooking the peace symbol-shaped quad of the 13,000-student university’s main campus in Vestal.

Swain, like her opponents, is armed with statistics. Her big number is $77,000. That’s roughly the average debt of a private law school graduate. And all but two of New York’s law schools are private.

Binghamton would fill a need for low-cost public law school, she said, with a tuition matching Buffalo’s $13,200. That’s roughly one-third of Albany Law’s $38,900 price.

Low tuition would mean people of modest means could graduate without significant debt. And that, she said, would help them work in the public sector as municipal attorneys or public defenders or politicians.

Being close to that world is one advantage to building the law school downtown, where Professor Thomas Sinclair would welcome the company.

Sinclair’s department moved from Vestal to Binghamton University’s downtown center last year. He loves the new digs. But when asked what’s missing, the professor of public administration offered a blunt response.

“It doesn’t have people yet,” he said.

Hundreds of people — the kind who might attract restaurants and shops that students like — would flock to streets pocked with empty storefronts and vacant office space if Binghamton opens a law school downtown.

So what about all that criticism?

State Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, rejected the suggestion that the project, which recently secured $3.5 million, is about ego or currying favor with constituents. The naysaying, he said, is to be expected.

“They know the academic reputation of Binghamton, and I think that frightens them a little bit that there may be some siphoning of students,” he said, adding, “We have no intention of making it the ‘Libous Law School.’ “

There won’t be any law school unless Binghamton gets approval from SUNY, the Education Department and from the governor for a project that will require $15 million in start-up costs, up to $76 million for the building and an annual operating budget of $10 million.

Lloyd Constantine, a candidate for SUNY chancellor who managed higher education policy for former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, argued that a low-cost law school in Binghamton fulfills a regional need and would help the university move toward becoming “another flagship in the system.”

Gov. David Paterson declined to take a position on the proposed law schools. Marissa Shorenstein, a spokeswoman, said Paterson recognizes the need for affordable legal education, especially upstate. The governor is reviewing the proposals “keeping in mind the fiscal hardship our state currently faces,” she said.

Sarah Goldman, a recent Albany Law grad, is facing her own fiscal hardship — law school debt. The 28-year-old from Orange County was perched on the judge’s bench in a mock court room at Albany Law recently, studying for the bar exam. She worried about the prospect of more law schools turning out more lawyers fighting for the same jobs.

“It might be nice to have a degree that costs less money,” she said, “but if there are more people with that degree, it’s harder to actually find work.” Parry can be reached at 454-5057 or by e-mail at mparry@timesunion.com.

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