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Law school separations could bring changes to Central Pa. law community

By the start of the next semester, the midstate’s two law schools will look very different.

They’ll have new names. New curriculum. They’ll have the same owners, but they’ll function as separate law schools for the first time in their histories.

The Penn State Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle will revert to its original name, Dickinson School of Law, by the start of the new school year. Widener Law in Harrisburg will become Widener University Commonwealth Law School, effective July 1.

Each school will change its curriculum to cater to its mission, including some focus areas specific to the Harrisburg region.

What this means for the midstate law community, however, likely won’t be known for years after both have implemented their plans. Joel Hopkins, a 1999 Widener Law Harrisburg graduate and a partner at Saul Ewing LLC in Harrisburg, said he hopes there will be a renewed focus on Widener’s evening program.

That would afford people who work full time, especially those in government, the chance to acquire a law degree and infuse the local law community with lawyers carrying real-world experience in their fields. Widener Law’s Delaware campus doesn’t have that kind of focus, Hopkins said, and he perceives the nontraditional student as being lost somewhat at the local campus.

“When it opened, the first class had three or four state legislators who graduated from the evening division. The program was very strong,” Hopkins said. “But I think as time went on, it was more, ‘We also have this evening division.’ I think now the campus will be able to get back to that focus of the nontraditional student.”

Back to its core

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Dickinson had been one of the oldest independent law schools in the country when it merged with Penn State Law in 2000. Since then, the school tried various models to work the two-campus system, one in Carlisle and one in University Park.

The tinkering ended in 2013, when the Dickinson campus applied to the American Bar Association to separate from Penn State Law. The ABA granted the request in 2014 and Dickinson said it would make the break effective for the start of the school year. It will still be owned by Penn State but will have its own curriculum separate from the University Park campus.

Gary S. Gildin, interim dean of the Carlisle campus, said the school in its new formation plans to accept its first class of students by about mid-April. The second- and third-year students will remain under the current format of one school, two campuses.

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