What UI Chicago and John Marshall Law School merger will mean for legal ed

By Jack Crittenden

The John Marshall Law School, which has been an independent school since it was founded in 1899, overcame its biggest hurdle to becoming part of the University of Illinois at Chicago when the University of Illinois’ board of trustees approved the merger last week. John Marshall’s board also approved the merger.

Assuming the American Bar Association and other accrediting bodies approve the merger, which is very likely, The John Marshall Law School will become Chicago’s first public law school in time for the Fall 2019 semester.

UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis and John Marshall Dean Darby Dickerson said the school’s tuition, currently at $47,000 a year, should drop.

“One of the most beneficial parts of this deal is that we will have public-level tuition,” said Dickerson, who has been at the school for 18 months. “The in-state tuition will be a game changer in this market.”

While the University of Illinois Board will set tuition rates, Dickerson is hopeful the school’s in-state rate will be similar to University of Illinois College of Law, which is $35,000 a year. That school is located in Champaign, about 130 miles south of Chicago.

If a tuition cut is realized, it would make John Marshall the least expensive law school in the Windy City, giving it a recruiting edge over rivals DePaul University, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Loyola Law School, Chicago. 

But John Marshall primarily moved forward with the merger to take advantage of curricular advantages, including dual degree programs, joint programs and access to a much larger faculty base.

“We hope to change our clinical programs into multi-disciplinary programs,” Dickerson said.

This would include partnering with social work and the different health sciences to provide more holistic resources, and to give law students a better understanding of how law works with other disciplines.

UIC, one of 115 research institutions in the nation, ranks in the top 25 for federal research money. It is one of only 32 research universities without a law school. UIC also wants to merge so it can offer more robust course offerings throughout the university.

“I believe this is a historic moment for UIC and for public education in Chicago,” Amiridis told the Chicago Tribune. “The integration will add significant value to all components of UIC’s mission: education, research and civic engagement.”

Dickerson said she forsees the law school expanding offerings in three key areas that are strengths for UIC — intellectual property, health sciences and law and public policy.

After the merger, full-time John Marshall faculty will transfer to UIC, with their tenure status, rank, and pay intact, Dickerson said.

The law school offered a voluntary buyout opportunity to senior faculty to allow them to retire if they wished to avoid a benefits transition. Six accepted the offer, Dickerson said.

But the school is not downsizing. John Marshall hired three faculty this summer, and will hire five more tenured faculty members to begin next summer or fall. The school hopes to hire an additional eight faculty members after the merger.

“Theses are not all entry-level positions,” Dickerson said. “We are hopeful the merger will help attract great faculty to compliment our existing faculty. Hopefully, we will get some rising starts to join us.”

John Marshall students will become UIC students and will be able to take interdisciplinary courses and have access to UIC housing and athletic facilities. The law school, which will remain in its building in the center of Chicago, is less than two miles from the UIC campus.

While legal education has struggled in recent years with enrollment, Dickerson said John Marshall came into the discussions in good financial shape and some leverage.

The law school owns its buildings without any debt, and prior to Dickerson’s arrival in January 2017, it had right-sized the staffing, dropping from 82 faculty members down to 48.

Still, joining with a larger university gives the law school a better safety net.

“While we were not a financially distressed school; we were seeing reduced applications and credentials,” Dickerson said. “UIC is on the rise and should help expand our application pool.”

The two institutions have been in talks for about two years, since Susan Poser took over as provost and COO at UIC. Poser was previously dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law and understands the value a law school brings to a research university.

University of Illinois at Chicago, John Marshall Law School, as it will be known, will be the fourth public law school in the state, joining University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University.

This would not be the first time an independent law school merged with a public institution. Texas A&M University acquired Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in 2012 and moved it from Irving, Texas, to Ft. Worth.

The University of Massachusetts acquired Southern New England School of Law, a small private school, in 2010. Also in 2010, Franklin Pierce Law Center affiliated with University of New Hampshire.

The Dickinson School of Law merged with Penn State University in 2000. Michigan State University took over Detroit College of Law in 1995 and eventually moved it to East Lansing.

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