A Free Ride for Law School

Since taking the helm of the UC Irvine School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, the school’s founding dean, has worked to provide full three-year scholarships for the school’s 2009 inaugural class. While this goal may appear idealistic on the surface, by looking underneath this exterior, one can see that Chemerinsky has successfully made this feat both understandable and practical.
While not everyone who graduates from law school may become a practicing lawyer, the word “lawyer” is still synonymous with the word “law school.” It is also no secret that lawyers are among the best paid professionals on the job market. According to May 2007 estimates published by the United States Department of Labor, the mean annual wage of a lawyer is $118,280. The annual mean wage of lawyers in California is even higher at $143,520. So why is the idea of giving prospective lawyers a free ride even being considered when there is such tremendous income potential?
The answer is that though some California lawyers are able to amass millions of dollars over their legal careers, they do not begin their lives that way. Furthermore, it should not be assumed that lawyers must come from fortunate backgrounds.
In addition to taking into account backgrounds, not all lawyers who graduate from a law school with such high ambitions as the UCI School of Law go onto immediate six-figure salaries. According to Rex Bossert, the director of communications and public affairs of the UCI School of Law, these scholarships are being awarded with this in mind.
“[The full scholarships] will allow students to pursue whatever career option they would like to after law school without being burdened by huge debt,” Bossert said.
Aside from the new law school, there are already four existing law schools either associated with one of the UCs or affiliated with the UC system in some way. According to Bossert, based on information compiled from the UC law schools, yearly tuition at the UCI School of Law is estimated to range from $33,000 to $35,000 a year. This can be a stifling sum to pay for any education, regardless of the field of study, which makes these scholarships all the more appealing.
Yet, admittedly not every lawyer comes from humble beginnings, which was the lone downside to providing full scholarships to the entire inaugural class, as expressed by Chemerinsky.
“We will be giving scholarships to some who don’t need them. My hope is that they will, in the short or long term, make contributions to the law school,” Chemerinsky said.
Regardless of what contributions members of this inaugural class make, what is known is that these full scholarships will not cost taxpayers a cent. The Associated Press reported that the funds needed to grant full scholarships to the 60 students, who will populate the 2009 inaugural class, will be $6 million. Chemerinsky’s progress in this department thus far is a testament to his commitment as much as it is a reminder of realistic limitations.
“The money for the scholarships is coming from private money that I am raising. It is not realistic – though I wish it were – to give a full scholarship to every student in the future,” Chemerinsky said.
Still, even if offering full scholarships to an entire class can only be done once, it should not be noted for its limitations, but instead be viewed as a sign of Chemerinsky’s practical nature.
Taking all of this into account, while free tuition is an appealing aspect from any educational entity, it is just that — one aspect. According to Victoria Ortiz, the dean of student services and the director of admissions of the UCI School of Law, full scholarships should not be the deciding factor in applying to law school.
“An important thing is as deliciously tempting as a free ride for three years sounds … if you weren’t planning to apply to law school in the first place, don’t do it just because there’s free tuition. Going to law school is really serious business,” Ortiz said.
As the UCI School of Law is the first public law school to open in California in the 21st century, a 21st century approach is necessary. Through such strategies as offering full scholarships to its inaugural student body, the UCI School of Law is accomplishing just that.

Daniel Johnson is a fourth-year literary journalism and film and media studies double-major. He can be reached at dcjohnso@uci.edu.