New England Law, Boston
has operated in the shadows of the region’s
more prestigious law schools for decades, trailing so far behind in some
measures of excellence that US News & World Report does not
include the downtown campus in its widely read ranking of 145 better law
schools in the nation. [New England is ranked #154 in academic reputation.]
Yet the school’s longtime dean, John F. O’Brien, may be the highest
paid law school dean in America, pocketing more than $867,000 a year in
salary and benefits, including a [$650,000] “forgivable loan” that he used to buy a
“It’s a remarkable sum to pay a dean of a law school, never mind the
dean of a bottom-ranked law school,” said Brian Z. Tamanaha, a law
professor and the author of Failing Law Schools, a 2012 book critical
of the nation’s legal education system.
O’Brien is paid about as much as the president of Harvard University
and more than three times the median salary of law school deans
nationally, says a study by the College and University Professional
Association for Human Resources. Indeed, New England Law could not name a
single law school dean in the country who makes more than O’Brien.
But O’Brien’s story is more than the tale of a richly compensated
school administrator. It is also the story of a professor who vaulted,
just a few years into his academic career, to the top job at a
lower-tier law school in large part through shrewd networking, sheer
persistence, and a close relationship with the school’s board of
trustees, many of whom have served on the board for most or all of
O’Brien’s 25-year tenure as dean.
It is also the story of a law school that has hiked tuition by more than
80% in just a few years while doubling the percentage of
applicants it accepts, generating the funds for increased student aid
but also for the big salaries paid to O’Brien and other top
administrators even as the demand for law school graduates dries up. ...
But, away from the glitz, O’Brien’s salary is drawing private
criticism from some within the school and public barbs from outside
observers who question whether the school is really worth the $40,000
tuition it charges students. “There’s no relationship between cost and benefit,” said Paul F.
Campos, a University of Colorado Law School professor and the author of
the blog “Inside the Law School Scam.” ...
[S]ome indicators suggest that O’Brien’s impact on New England Law’s
performance has been limited. US News & World Report, in its listing
of 199 law schools, includes New England Law among the bottom 50 or so
schools that it does not publicly rank because they fall “below the US
In addition, only 34 percent of students in New England Law’s 2011
graduating class were able to land jobs requiring a law degree within
nine months of graduating, according to the American Bar Association,
compared with 68 percent at Boston College Law School, and 90 percent at
Harvard Law. ...
Yet, students at New England Law pay almost as much in tuition as
students attending law schools where graduates generally have more
success finding meaningful employment. Boston College law students, for
instance, pay only about $1,000 a year more than New England Law
But New England Law’s escalating tuition has been a boon to its
bottom line. The school — a tax-exempt, charitable organization, like
most other colleges and universities in the region — reported that
revenues exceeded expenses by $10 million in the 2011 fiscal year, which
would represent a profit of roughly 30 percent if it were a for-profit
O’Brien said the school’s robust finances have allowed New England
Law to triple financial aid, noting that 60 percent of students receive
some form of scholarship from the school. The school’s budget surplus translates into roughly $9,000 for every
student at New England Law, suggesting that officials could
significantly reduce tuition and still not lose money for the year. ...
A native of Staten Island, he had graduated from Manhattan College, a
Catholic school in the Bronx, before graduating first in the class of
1977 at what was then New England School of Law.
For the next seven years, O’Brien labored as an attorney for the IRS
before returning to New England Law as a professor of constitutional law
and personal income taxation and, later, associate dean. In 1988, when
he was still only in his late 30s, he was handed the reins of a school
known for offering students of lesser means or less than sterling
credentials a chance for legal training.