PORTLAND – Applications to the University of Maine School of Law increased 66 percent this year, fortifying a belief that the state’s only law school is ripe for expansion.

The school’s foundation board has hired a consultant to begin a six- to eight-month feasibility study to determine whether the school could sustain a 30 percent to 40 percent enrollment increase, said Peter Pitegoff, dean of the law school.

The study also will help the board decide whether it’s time to expand or replace the school’s round, cramped and outdated building at Deering and Brighton avenues, on the University of Southern Maine campus.

“We believe we’re on the cusp of becoming a much more prominent institution in Maine and nationally,” Pitegoff said. “We need to validate our vision and do some careful planning.”

The law school received 1,168 applications for the 2010 fall enrollment, from 706 applications in 2009, Pitegoff said. The school typically gets 700 to 800 applications annually. By comparison, law school applications increased about 7 percent nationally, he said.

Applications to the Maine law school increased for a few reasons, Pitegoff said.

The law school expanded its outreach this year, launching a new website and tripling the number of e-mail invitations it sent to people who took the Law School Admission Test. The school sent e-mails to 12,000 people throughout the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic states and the Northwest, where it typically draws students, Pitegoff said.

The down economy and job market also contributed to the increase, he said, largely because its tuition compares favorably to other law schools that charge as much as $50,000 a year. Tuition to the University of Maine law school costs $20,670 for residents and $31,500 for nonresidents.

“Applicants were looking much more closely at the financial advantage of going to a smaller institution,” Pitegoff said. “We also got a lot of very strong applications from Mainers who normally would have ventured down to (law schools in) Boston or elsewhere.”

The Maine law school made offers to 430 applicants this year and is on track to enroll about 100 new students in the fall — a slight increase over the usual 85 to 95 new students.

But the school has neither the space nor the faculty to enroll additional students, Pitegoff said. It has a total enrollment of 265 students pursuing a juris doctorate over three years. An increase of 30 percent to 40 percent would boost overall enrollment to between 345 and 370 students.

OFFICIAL: FACILITY LIMITS POTENTIAL

If school officials, including University of Maine System trustees, decide to expand the law school, they will have to construct a new building, said Dan Boxer, a retired lawyer and former chief administrative officer at Fairchild Semiconductor who teaches at the law school and sits on its Board of Visitors.

In addition to being difficult to navigate, the law school lacks adequate lounge, study and classroom space and access to technology that students expect in modern school buildings, Boxer said. The cost of a new building isn’t known yet, he said, but it will likely require a private fundraising campaign because taxpayers cannot afford it.

“The law school has really moved itself up to being a fine, small, regional school,” said Boxer, who studied at Cornell Law School. “But we can’t do any more where we are. We need a different facility so we can provide greater flexibility beyond the core curriculum.”

Founded in 1962, the law school followed several similar institutions that operated in Maine starting around 1900, Pitegoff said. In 2010, it was ranked 100 among 200 law schools across the United States that are approved by the American Bar Association, according to toplawschools.com. It was unranked as a third-tier school by U.S. News and World Report.

PRESERVING LAW SCHOOL’S NICHE

It recently faced the potential of a second law school opening in Maine, when Husson University in Bangor petitioned the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for permission to have its future law students take the Maine bar exam. The court denied the request in March, and Husson dropped its plans to open a law school in April.

The Maine law school has a yearly operating budget of $7.5 million. With a few more students, the law school would have more revenue to hire additional faculty and offer wider academic programming that would build on several niche specialties already available, Pitegoff and Boxer said.

The school offers programs in marine law, intellectual property and patent law, government and corporate ethics, and data privacy. It also has a long-standing academic exchange with several French universities.

With such a modest expansion, the Maine law school would remain small enough to preserve the characteristics that distinguish it from larger law schools, Pitegoff said.

As the state’s only law school, it offers unique access to specialized learning opportunities and law internships and it welcomes older students. The average age of students at the law school is 30, compared to 25 at law schools nationally, he said.

“We will remain one of the smallest law schools in the country,” Pitegoff said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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