Law Schools

Dean of unranked law school may be highest-paid in nation


John O’Brien has a lucrative gig at New England law school.

His earnings of $867,000 in compensation and benefits are so high, in fact, that he may be the highest paid law dean in the country, the Boston Globe (sub. req.) reports. The amount is more than three times the median salary of the country’s law school deans. TaxProf Blog has published highlights.

The total includes a $650,000 forgivable loan that O’Brien used to buy a Florida condominium. The Boston Globe does not say how much of the compensation is attributable to the loan, but does say O’Brien’s salary was boosted to $615,000 in 2008 to keep other schools from luring him away. He received the loan that same year.

“O’Brien’s salary is drawing private criticism from some within the school,” the story says, “and public barbs from outside observers who question whether the school is really worth the $40,000 tuition it charges students.”

The unranked law school has increased tuition 80 percent in the past few years, enabling it to increase student aid, reward its top administrators and increase earnings. The tax-exempt organization has reported its revenues exceeded expenses by $10 million in the 2011 fiscal year. Just 34 percent of the school’s 2011 grads were able to land jobs requiring a law degree.

Martin Foster, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, tells the Globe that O’Brien’s salary is justified. His work on national legal issues has raised the school’s profile, the percentage of grads who pass the bar has risen significantly, and the school’s full-time faculty has also increased. (O’Brien is immediate past chair of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which accredits law schools.)

O’Brien tells the Globe he is the country’s longest continuous serving law dean at a single institution. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not a lot of money,” he said. “I think most people would tell you I come to work and I work very hard, day in and day out.”

The law school released this statement to the ABA Journal on Tuesday: “Dean O’Brien’s compensation reflects his more than 24-year tenure as dean and the dedicated leadership he provides as both the dean and CEO of an independent law school, overseeing all areas of the law school’s operation and making our institution financially stable.

“The effectiveness of New England Law’s approach is apparent in our bar pass rates, which have climbed over the past decade from an average of just above 70 percent to an average for the most recent three years of 90 percent. Of the class of 2011, 62.8 percent of identified graduates obtained employment within nine months of graduation that either required bar passage or in which legal training was an important qualification.

“In 2007-2008, New England Law/Boston increased tuition in order to increase merit scholarship funds by approximately 250 percent, maintain our financial stability, and provide flexibility in making investments in infrastructure, technology, and other improvements.”

Updated on Jan. 15 to include the statement issued by New England Law.

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