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USM, Maine Law Partner to Offer 6-Year Undergraduate, Law Program

PORTLAND, Maine — For those hoping to make a career in law, the standard commitment is a four-year bachelor's degree and three years of law school. But under a program unveiled today at the University of Southern Maine, students will be able to shave a year off of that schedule, and save the tuition.

USM and the University of Maine Law School say they believe the program will make it easier for students to get a law degree, and also bolster enrollment. But some question whether such arrangements actually help students.

The expedited track is a "3+3" program — three years of undergrad and three years of law school. Maine Law Director of Admissions Caroline Wilshusen says the model trims students' undergraduate programs.

"So they would not be cutting off any of their legal training," she says. "What they would be doing is they would be able to transfer their first year of law school, and that would count as their fourth year of undergraduate."

The plan is to launch the program by the spring of 2017. Students at USM can choose to enroll in the program their sophomore year and get academic coaching to complete the necessary coursework. In their junior year, says USM Provost Jeannine Uzzi, students would apply to Maine Law.

"There's no guarantee of acceptance into law school, because law school has rigorous admissions standards," she says.

If accepted, students eliminate one year of tuition, which currently runs about $9,000 for in-state students at USM and $21,000 for out-of-state students. And Uzzi says that's a factor affecting whether students ultimately succeed in attaining advanced degrees.

"Time to degree is something at-risk students often cite as a barrier to completion," she says. "So with any kind of accelerated program you're more likely to get students finishing that program."

"These programs are increasing in popularity," says Barry Currier, director of accreditation and legal education at the American Bar Association. Currier says the ABA doesn't keep track of the number of schools who offer expedited programs, but he says it's a good option to offer students.

"Better for a student going to law school to get a good education at as reasonable a price as possible and to graduate with as little debt as possible," he says.

And USM and Maine Law believe they stand to gain by boosting enrollment. But that's exactly what makes Kyle McEntee, executive director of the advocacy organization Law School Transparency, somewhat leery.

"I'm just skeptical that there's anything motivating this other than trying to find a way to guarantee greater enrollment, which is a different question than, 'Is the best way to serve students and serve Maine?'"

McEntee says 3+3 programs can trap students in a career path they're forced to choose early in their education. He says a better option for Maine in particular would be for undergraduate schools to offer a five-year undergraduate program where students can take the bar afterwards.

"Think of it more like a business degree, where you happen to be able to take the bar afterwards," he says.

Undergraduate education tends to be cheaper, says McEntee, and such a program would give graduates more flexibility in their career path — especially given the less-than-stellar job market for attorneys in recent years.

But Wilshusen says the market is improving, and there are plenty of ways to use a law degree. She says many recruits initially have a narrow vision of what a law degree can do.

"Oh, you know, 'Law and Order,'" she says. "They see themselves going in and being the DA or the defense attorney."

But Wilshusen says there are opportunities outside the courtroom, in areas such as public policy and drafting legislation.

Uzzi sees expedited programs as an important addition to the school's offerings. She says USM will soon announce two other accelerated programs it will offer in partnership with the University of Maine at Farmington.