Much has changed since 1972. Richard Nixon was president, and The Godfather was the year’s highest grossing film. A gallon of gas set you back about 36 cents, and a new home could be purchased for about $40,000. And in a church basement in Washington, D.C., five attorneys started what later would become the George Mason University School of Law .
Now consistently ranked as one of the top 50 law schools in the country, the School of Law is in the unique position of being both young and esteemed. The Law School attracts prestigious faculty, including former officials from the White House, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Justice, as well as high-caliber students to its urban Arlington location.
Much of the school’s current success was set in motion in that church basement more than 35 years ago and continued into the 1980s with the idea that a law school should groom its graduates for the specialized nature of law.
“We’ve been very lucky to have had strong leadership in our infancy,” says Mason School of Law Dean Daniel Polsby. “Dean Henry Manne set us on a very constructive course.”
Longtime faculty members, such as Jack Costello who has taught at the Law School since 1977, have seen it evolve. “Mason’s School of Law has changed from a young, struggling, and hopeful institution to an achieving, major force on the American legal scene.”
The International School of Law was founded in 1972 by John Brabner-Smith, who later became the school’s first dean. Brabner-Smith launched the school with a different vision. To create a forward-looking law school, he first looked to the past.
Brabner-Smith argued that 19th-century law schools created more well-rounded lawyers than 20th-century schools because they were better integrated into universities as a whole, teaching students about law, as well as finance, economics, politics, and jurisprudence.
When Mason took over the International School of Law in 1979, this idea remained at the forefront of the school’s mission. George W. Johnson, who was university president at the time, repeatedly said that he did not want “just another good law school,” recalls Henry Manne, who became dean of the school in 1986.
“[Johnson] wanted to be at the cutting edge, set new models for other universities, and take chances to move Mason’s reputation along in a hurry,” Manne says.
So Mason’s Law School set itself apart by offering areas of specialization to its students. Manne compares this practice to the world of modern medicine, in which doctors are trained for specialized fields instead of the general practitioners of yore. He explains that, by and large, most lawyers also specialize in one field and therefore should be trained as such.
“Like it or not, [specialization] is a fact of professional life. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, no American law school until Mason’s made a comprehensive effort to train students for this kind of professional reality,” says Manne, who led the school from 1986 to 1997.
While the school’s initial specialization concentrated on economics, students can now choose from tracks in intellectual property and homeland and national security law. Economics has retained a major emphasis, however, because the law school’s curriculum integrates economic and quantitative tools throughout its required courses. Approximately one-third of full-time faculty members hold degrees in economics in addition to a juris doctor.
“Dean Manne established the Law School as a major center of law and economics research,” says professor Ilya Somin. “That legacy continues to have a big impact today even though we now have many scholars who use other methodologies.”
The Successful Experiment
This specialization has served the Law School’s graduates well. Costello points out that being a so-called “niche school” has not had any ill effects when it comes to training future lawyers. “Look at our recent bar pass rates,” he says. “Our people compete with and defeat most ‘general schools.’”
In addition, Ken Cuccinelli, JD ’95, became Mason’s first alumnus elected to statewide office last year when he won the Virginia state attorney race. Sean Connaughton, JD ’92, was recently named Virginia’s transportation secretary by incoming governor Bob McDonnell. Mason’s alumni pool also boasts an impressive number of seated judges across the country.
Keeping in mind the school’s relative youth—three decades is not a long time in the law school world—Polsby points out that the School of Law’s distinguished alumni base will continue to increase as time goes on and as more and more students graduate.
“Our alumni are making a mark in the world, and that’s something we can all take a great deal of pride in,” says Foundation Professor of Law Todd Zywicki.
Of course, behind every great alumnus is a great faculty member. One report gives Mason’s law faculty a mean ranking of 21 in scholarly impact among the top 35 law schools in a 2007 study. In 2009, Mason’s School of Law was ranked 17 by total new downloads of scholarly papers for U.S. law schools. In addition, six full-time faculty members are listed among the top 200 law authors for total new downloads.
And whether it’s testifying before Congress or writing for one of the several respected law blogs affiliated with the school, faculty members are highly visible in the national capital area and across the country.
Zywicki credits Mason’s environment “that’s conducive to intellectual curiosity” with helping to retain its highly qualified faculty. “I’ve visited a lot of other law schools, but whenever I come back, I feel I’ve come to my intellectual home,” Zywicki says. “Mason does not labor under a lot of baggage that is so stifling at other universities.”
Planning for the Future
With notable alumni and star faculty, every year the standards for admission get more competitive. The 247 first-year law students enrolled in fall 2009 were selected from an applicant pool of 5,273 prospective students, 25 percent of whom received offers of admission.
And every year, the caliber of students rises. The 2009 entering class has a median LSAT score of 163 and a median GPA of 3.72, and incoming students hold a total of 30 advanced degrees. Every year, law students are awarded various accolades, including the 2009 Distinguished Writing Award from the Burton Foundation for student Elizabeth Maher.
Kathryn Cryzster, JD ’09, says, “Mason is a small school with access to all the resources that the Washington metropolitan area has to offer. Students have the opportunity to interact with professors and other students one on one during class and then see the legal system in action after class through mentorship programs, internships, and jobs in the nation’s capital.”
“We’re going to confront financial constraints, but we’ve discovered a business plan that works,” says Zywicki. “We keep continuing to get excellent faculty, better students, and a higher public profile. We’re going to continue to build on those fundamentals—and hope our rivals don’t steal too many of our ideas.”