To teach his upper-level class in federal jurisdiction last spring, Ronald Chen met his 10 law students in a sleek new room at Rutgers University–Newark that looks like a compact lecture hall set down inside a movie mogul’s home theater. Five students sat in black  leather chairs in the tiers of long curved desks. Five other students sat  in identical chairs at identical desks in an identical room—83 miles away at Rutgers University–Camden. 

The Camden law students appeared on a 14-foot wide screen that doubled the size of the room—and the reach of Chen’s lesson. The life-sized image, so realistic, makes a sports bar’s video array look like black-and-white Philcos with rabbit ears. During one class, one of the Camden students leaned over to a neighbor and whispered a question. “What did he mean by that?” he asked, confident that the 83-mile gap would keep it private. It did not.

“I shocked them by answering the question,” says Chen NLAW’83. “They didn’t realize the microphone had caught it and I could hear it.”

The official name of the room is the “immersive distance education classroom,” but it so resembles in spirit and function the virtual-reality facility in Star Trek that it has come to be known more familiarly as the holodeck. The twin holodecks in Newark and Camden function as a virtual New Jersey Turnpike, a route that connects the two locations and allows law students and professors to instantly traverse the state, without traffic and tolls.

And they helped pave the way for the recent merger of the School of Law–Newark and the School of Law–Camden to form the new Rutgers Law School.

John Oberdiek, the acting co-dean of the new Rutgers Law School, is pictured with Phoebe Haddon, the chancellor of Rutgers University–Camden


John Oberdiek, the acting co-dean of the new Rutgers Law School, is pictured with Phoebe Haddon, the chancellor of Rutgers University–Camden. “The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts under the merger,” says Oberdiek, “and we raise the national profile of a legal education at Rutgers.”

Nick Romanenko

“Without this, it’s not clear how the law school could merge at a curricular level, because it would be unrealistic to think students would actually travel from place to place,” says John Oberdiek, formerly the acting dean of the Camden law school and now acting co-dean of Rutgers Law School, along with Chen, who had been the dean of the Newark law school. The holodecks were a highlight of a visit earlier this year by a committee from the American Bar Association (ABA), which had to approve the merger.

“Once they saw it, they realized what we were talking about: that the 80-mile distance between Newark and Camden in today’s technology is just not that significant,” says Chen. “It is so naturally interactive that after a little while, you almost lose sense of the fact that the other students are not physically there.”

Until 1967, Rutgers had what almost every other state university has: a single public law school. The university’s law school was based in Newark with a small presence in Camden, but political pressure in southern New Jersey led to a divorce. The Camden law school was split off as a separate entity and gradually grew to roughly the same size and stature as the Newark law school. “It might have been perfectly sensible in 1967, but it really doesn’t make sense now for one university to have two competing law schools,” says Chen, who has taught at the Newark school since 1987. “A lot of people were thinking, ‘Why are we competing with our own sister institution over students, over resource allocations from the state? We are shooting ourselves in our mutual feet. We are much more effective if we join forces.’

But the remarriage—which became official after approvals from, first, the Rutgers Board of Governors this spring and, finally, the ABA this summer—came only after a long and cautious courtship.

Roger Clark arrived at the Camden law school as a young professor in 1972 from his native New Zealand, whose accent he still retains. “It was an exciting time in legal education, because there were a number of totally new schools starting,” says Clark, a world- renowned authority on international law. “I was about the 16th person hired on the faculty, and that was doubling what they’d had just three or four years previously, and we doubled the  faculty again over the next two years.”

He had studied at Columbia Law School, where Camden’s first dean, Russell Fairbanks, had been an associate dean. Fairbanks lured several other young scholars from his venerable old school to his ambitious new one, making it, Clark said,  “a sort of Columbia  outpost,” and setting it apart, in philosophy and method, from the law school in Newark it had split from. “We developed somewhat different cultures early on.”

Camden evolved as a traditional scholarly law school. It was one of the first to recognize the importance of international law, underscored by Clark’s appointment in 1972, and the Camden law school has long been  committed to viewing law and legal scholarship from a global perspective. Newark, by contrast, was at the forefront of a movement toward clinical legal education, where upper-level students handle actual cases with faculty guidance, from personal bankruptcies to matters  of great constitutional import. (Today, Rutgers Law School has 17 in-house  clinics.) Arthur Kinoy—a civil rights and free speech advocate as well as a lawyer for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and, later, the Chicago Seven—was a towering  presence. Law schools should make the profession “relevant to the pressing and fundamental problems of contemporary American society,” Kinoy wrote, and  “to the solution of central issues which dominate American life.”

“This was the first law reform clinic in the country,” Frank Askin says of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic he started in 1970. Now known as the Constitutional Rights Clinic, its first two cases challenged the government surveillance of political activists and police profiling in highway stops. “Everything old is new again. Those issues are still around.”

Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark, is pictured with Ronald Chen, acting co-dean of Rutgers Law School.


Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark, is pictured with Ronald Chen, acting co-dean of Rutgers Law School. “We have millions of people who go into court or have a legal problem and go unrepresented because they can’t afford a lawyer,” says Chen.  “So, the notion that there are too many lawyers doesn’t wash.”

Nick Romanenko

Askin NLAW’66 arrived at the Newark law school in 1963 and never left. “Ruth Ginsburg and I came to Rutgers on the same day, she as a faculty member and I as a student,” he says, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court justice who taught at the law school until 1972. His first day as a part-time student—a former reporter, he worked nights on the Star-Ledger copy desk while in school—was spent in her class on civil procedure, a course that he started teaching himself when he was appointed to the faculty following his graduation in 1966. Two years ago, Askin taught an election law seminar that included four Camden students, using the balkier technology in the old  distance-learning classroom in Newark. He does not plan to try again using the holodeck; he expects to retire next summer, after one more year teaching  the clinic—and 50 years on the faculty.

“It was a forward-looking faculty,” says Askin, “with a lot of good people interested in public affairs”—a tradition shared at Camden, where its pioneering domestic violence clinic is in its second decade.

But few members of the Newark faculty had anything to do with their colleagues in Camden, and few of their Camden  colleagues had anything to do with them. “Nothing; there’s a short answer,” says Clark. “I went up and gave the odd guest lecture, but we were two totally separate institutions and there really wasn’t any significant cross-fertilization.”

Clark sometimes met with a Newark colleague who was also a widely known international law scholar, Saul Mendlovitz—but in New York, at the United Nations. “I literally never have seen the building they were in, even to this day,” says Mendlovitz, who has taught in Newark since 1956. “Nobody knew anybody on the other faculty. We looked upon them as our poor cousins and they looked upon us as their poor cousins. Nobody ever interacted. We were very distant from each other.” Which didn’t seem to make much sense to some people at both schools.

Soon after he became dean of the Camden law school in 1998, Rayman Solomon had a conversation with one of his predecessors, Roger Dennis, who was then the provost of Rutgers–Camden. “I said, ‘Is there any chance that the two schools could become Rutgers Law School?’” said Solomon, who was dean until 2013 and then served for two years as provost. “And he laughed and said, ‘You know, I have a whole memo about this from probably every dean since they were split in 1967,’ because it made a lot of sense to have one law school for the university.”

But large institutions tend to move slowly, and the idea of a merger remained just an idea, until John Farmer Jr. became dean of the Newark law school in 2009. In January 2011, the two law deans had their first conversation on the subject. “We were having coffee,” Solomon recalls, “and he said to me, ‘Look I’ve been studying this and I think the only way that both of us could achieve greatness would be to merge.’ I didn’t hesitate; I just said, ‘I totally agree. I’ve thought about this for years, that the competition between us is not helpful.’ So we then spent an hour or two talking about it.”

The holodeck lecture halls


The holodeck lecture halls, which link the Rutgers Law School facilities in Camden and Newark by means of large screens, allows professor Joanne Gottesman to coteach a live class of “Child Migration and U.S. Immigration Policy” from Camden, while professor Randi Mandelbaum, whose image appears on the screen, contributes from Newark. The course, which included a student trip to Guatemala during spring break, will be taught again in the spring of 2016.

Robert Laramie

Farmer came to Rutgers from outside  academia, with a long résumé of public service, including a stint as New Jersey attorney general. “Coming from outside, you understand that things are possible that may not seem as  possible to the folks on the inside,” says Farmer, who became university counsel in 2013 and today is a professor at the law school and special counsel to the president of the university. “We’re very much like New Jersey in the sense that we spend so much time arguing and competing with each other that we forget that our real competition is with other places and other states.”

Their conversation grew into meetings with the faculty by that summer. “It’s not something you want to spring on people unless you’ve really thought it through,” Solomon says. “No one said: ‘Over my dead body.’ It was much more: ‘Let’s be cautious; there are lots of obstacles’—which we all knew.”

And then, in 2012, came the controversial proposal, which was ultimately defeated, to merge Rutgers–Camden with Rowan University as part of the larger plan to integrate most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) into Rutgers. “That, of course, put a halt to the discussion,” says Oberdiek. “That really blindsided us. The aftereffect of the Rowan debacle was that it made clearer, certainly to the faculty here in Camden, the importance of being embedded in a major public research university. We had all, in the back of our minds, appreciated the fact that Rutgers is this massive research university. But until, as  it were, the near-death experience that we all had with Rowan, we didn’t fully appreciate what that meant. Now, we are positioned to more fully realize our strengths as a crucial part of a major research university, and Rutgers is able to boast a truly world-class law school.”

Once the integration of UMDNJ and Rutgers was completed in the summer of 2013, retaining Rutgers–Camden as part of the university, discussions about merging the law schools resumed. Rutgers president Robert Barchi and the new chancellors in Newark and Camden, Nancy Cantor and Phoebe Haddon, respectively, supported the move, as did the faculties at both schools. Even before the Board of Governors voted to approve the integration of UMDNJ into Rutgers in the summer of 2013, two underused spaces at the two law schools—an old computer lab in Newark and a pair of windowless seminar rooms in Camden—were converted into the matching set of holodecks, and the first joint dean was appointed. “There’s osmosis going in both directions,” says Jill Friedman, the associate dean for pro bono and public interest at Rutgers Law School.

Nikolas Rodriguez and Jaclyn Palmerson


Nikolas Rodriguez and Jaclyn Palmerson are the editors in chief of the Rutgers Law Review. Rodriguez is based in Newark and Palmerson in Camden.

Nick Romanenko

Rutgers Law School is now among the nation’s largest, with more than 100 scholars, 1,000 students, and a student-faculty ratio similar to leading public law schools. It will also have a 20,000-strong alumni network, notable both for its glamour quotient and its  practical value. Among its well-known alumni are U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren NLAW’76, former New Jersey governor James J. Florio CLAW’67 (a 1990 inductee in the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni), and a deep lineup of judges, members of Congress, and other public officials. Many alumni are  partners in law firms in New York, Philadelphia, and all over New Jersey, and they do the hiring of young associates. And because tuition is about half that at most private law schools, according to Chen, more graduates, less burdened by debt, are able to work in public service and the other sectors of the  profession where the need for services is large but pay is lower.

Rutgers Law School will build on the two former law schools’ proven strengths: criminal law, intellectual property law, corporate and business law, and health law, as well as a wide array of legal clinics at both locations. “The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts under the merger, and we raise the national profile of legal education at Rutgers,” says Oberdiek.  “I do expect that over time, with the reputation of the school growing, our stature as a national leader in legal education will grow as well.”

Although the new law school will get new signs and stationery, it will not get  a new building but will continue to  use existing facilities in Newark and Camden, both of which are relatively new. On their applications, prospective students will check a box to indicate the location at which they wish to study. “We are a public law school, and so it is part of our mission to serve the residents of New Jersey,” says Oberdiek. “Frankly, there is no better place to do that than in Camden and Newark.”

It does fill that role through the free legal work that students and their  professors provide via the clinical classes and pro bono programs, such as the bankruptcy program. “It’s a terrible,  terrible thing to have debt, and people encounter it for reasons that could befall  anybody: you lose a job or you have an  accident, and all of a sudden you can’t pay your bills,” says Friedman, describing the project. “It provides high-quality legal services to people and a tremendous amount of relief so they can move forward with their lives. The students have a very significant role in making that happen.

And teenagers entangled in criminal cases have advocates in professor Laura Cohen in Newark and professor Sandra Simkins in Camden, who both specialize in juvenile justice issues and who started working together on the first joint  project between the two schools in 2008, long before their deans’ coffee conversation. “Juvenile cases are really quick. So when a student comes in, they can actually see an entire case from beginning to end in one semester, and that’s rare in the law,” said Simkins CLAW’91, who graduated when the school offered no clinical classes like the one she now runs. “I do think it’s the best way to gain practical experience, and I think it’s very similar to the doctors’ model: you’ve got to go in and be in a hospital for real.”

More students will be getting that kind of legal experience, and more  clients will be getting that kind of legal service. A recent $1 million gift from James Maida will fund 40 paid summer fellowships in public interest legal groups as well as a yearlong full-time  fellowship for a graduate working in  the public interest field.

“They don’t have to look too far because right outside their doorstep are people who need help,” says Maida CLAW’90, who was still in law school when he started Gaming Laboratories International, a company that tests gambling equipment and consults for the gaming industry. His wife, Sharon O’Mara Maida GSE’97, is widely known for her pioneering work with visually impaired children.

“Rutgers is doing the right thing by merging the law schools, and this gift is in recognition of that,” says Maida, who has long provided scholarships for Camden law students, but has never visited Rutgers–Newark. “We were looking to do something that had statewide impact. The merger was important to fully realize the benefit of the gift.”

The merger comes at a time of broad soul-searching discussions about American legal education. The recession erased the jobs of many lawyers, and law school applications dropped nationwide, as they did at the two Rutgers law schools. “The legal profession was getting smug, self-satisfied, and quite arrogant in the way that it thought it could just say: ‘We can write our own ticket. The clients will pay what we ask them to pay. And we simply deliver our services like priests from behind the rood screen without any scrutiny from those to whom we were delivering,’” says Chen, who worked at a prominent Manhattan law firm before returning to teach at  the law school. From 2006 to 2010, he also served as the Public Advocate of  New Jersey. 

“And basically, even through the cycles of the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, the profession got away with it,” he  continues. “The economic downturn showed that we can’t do that—that the legal profession is accountable to the public and to what it costs to have a  lawyer and what really requires a lawyer rather than someone else. So that has placed a lot of pressures on the legal  profession to account for why it costs so much. Yet we still have the irony that we have millions of people who go into court or have a legal problem who go unrepresented because they can’t afford  a lawyer. The notion that there are too many lawyers just doesn’t wash.”

A program that started in Newark in 2014, the first of its kind in the nation, is meant to address that issue from both sides—in how lawyers are trained and in how clients are served. “Doctors have it right: a residency is what’s needed,” says Andrew Rothman, associate dean for  student affairs in the law school. Rothman NLAW’90 started and runs  the Rutgers Law Associates Fellowship Program, which he describes as a “low bono” law firm of six new graduates hanging out a shingle together for a year and, under his guidance, offering $50-an-hour legal services to people who might not qualify for free legal help but who can’t afford to pay more. “Ultimately, my hope is that everyone who graduates from law school will have a year of residency under their belt. I know that’s what the judges around the country would like.”

The Law Associates office has a waiting list of potential clients and expects to move into larger quarters soon—the old distance learning classroom that has been supplanted by the holodeck. •