On August 24, 2009, the hallways and classrooms of Berkeley Place will be filled with new law students and faculty as the University of California, Irvine School of Law opens its doors for instruction for the first time.
Headed by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned constitutional law scholar who was appointed to the position after a controversial hiring process in summer 2007, the School of Law has already attracted a star-studded faculty filled with leaders in legal academia and an inaugural class of 65 with impressive academic credentials.
But there are several obstacles to overcome before the School of Law can fulfill the lofty goals of Dean Chemerinsky, who has a two-fold vision for the school: first, the school will become “the ideal law school for the 21st century,” and second, it will rank within the top 20 schools in the nation almost immediately.
In the construction of a new, “21st century law school,” school administrators have promised an innovative new curriculum in which students will learn law not merely in academic, theoretical applications, but through practical experience.
The first year coursework will still contain many of the same classes universal among first year law school curriculums including classes like Contracts, Torts and Property. But this schedule will be punctuated by courses teaching “lawyering skills.” For example, students will learn skills necessary to work with actual clients — a skill set often neglected in legal education.
Starting in the second semester of their first year, students will put these skills to the test when they begin performing intake interviews for organizations such as Legal Aid of Orange County or the Offices of the Public Defender. Students will determine whether potential cases should be pursued by their organization and present their findings to attorneys.
“For decades, if not centuries, there’s always been a tension in legal education between those who see [law school] as an academic intellectual pursuit and those who see it as a vocational training ground,” said Victoria Ortiz, Dean of Students and Director of Admissions at the School of Law, “Dean Chemerinsky, in founding the law school, felt that there was no earthly reason not to continue to have an academic approach but to actually give students the skills they need to go out and practice law.”
Although the second and third year curriculums have not yet been finalized, Ortiz says a balance of the theoretical and practical will continue to be sought, “so that the subject matter becomes the vehicle for analytical skills or practical skills.”
Chemerinsky’s second goal, to turn UCI School of Law into a powerhouse ranked among the top 20 schools in the country, will take more time.
The first step is accreditation, a time consuming and intensive process. Accreditation is important not only because it qualifies students to take the Bar Exam in June of their third year, but also because it provides the law school with a minimum degree of institutional credibility that is universally recognized.
The process will begin toward the end of the school’s first academic year, when school administrators will apply to the American Bar Association for provisional accreditation. In fall of 2010, the ABA will send a five person group to campus. These individuals, often faculty and administration from other law schools, create reports detailing the school’s level of compliance with certain minimum requirements in anything from the number of volumes in the library to record keeping to the size of faculty offices.
If this visit goes well, as the administration anticipates, the ABA should grant the school provisional accreditation in early 2011.
Though the administration has little doubt about the law school’s ability to be granted accreditation, the more pressing issue regards how quickly it can gain prominence in the legal world.
Chemerinsky has already increased the school’s visibility by hiring several prominent professors, with many already at premier law schools in the country. Brian Leiter, a well-known law school blogger, recently ranked UCI law as 10th in the nation, tied with the University of Pennsylvania, in terms of scholarly impact of faculty.
Chemerinsky also made headlines in late 2008 when he announced that a full scholarship would be offered to every member of the inaugural class. The scholarships were made possible by a $20 million donation from entrepreneur and philanthropist Donald Bren.
UCI law representatives also visited colleges across the country last year in order to increase the law school’s visibility among potential applicants.
Ultimately, these efforts generated enormous interest and the fledgling law school received 2741 applications for 60 spots. Only 110 applicants, or about 4 percent of the pool, were offered admission. This constituted the lowest acceptance rate at any law school last year. While 68 students have accepted their offers of admission, Dean Ortiz expects a class of approximately 65 “when the dust clears.”
The large number of applicants allowed the law school significant latitude in building a distinct and talented student body. In the class of 65 students, 41 different undergraduate institutions and 32 majors are represented. About half the class attended a college institution outside of California. Students included engineers, a doctor and personal trainers, among others. With a median LSAT score of 167 and GPA of 3.6, the student body has similar academic credentials to those at schools like the University of California, Los Angeles Law School.
Ortiz says that interest about the law school remains tremendous among prospective students.
“Obviously some of it is the full tuition, but a lot of it is that there has been very positive buzz about the law school. We’ve done very energetic recruiting and public speaking, and our communication person has been fabulous in drawing attention to us,” said Ortiz.
A formal decision has not yet been made on how much money will be offered to future classes, but Chemerinsky promises that any scholarship will be “significant,” at the very least.
For now, this year’s class will be charged for designing and putting into place some of the fundamental components of the law school, such as law review, moot court and other activities and organizations.
“I think we’re all anxiously awaiting the arrival of our students, because they’re the ones that are going to work with us to define what activities we engage in and what group organizations are formed,” said Ortiz.
Though the School of Law will have a significant amount of interaction with the University and will eventually allow law students to take courses within the University, the School of Law will remain essentially independent in its daily functions. It will operate on its own registrar, financial aid, career services and admissions.
The School of Law will even be on its own academic calendar, one which uses a semester system contrary to the rest of the University. This system was chosen primarily because the Bar Exam is administered in June. On the quarter system, students would have significantly less time to prepare. A similar system has been successfully implemented at UCLA Law, whose main campus is also on the quarter system.
The School of Law will begin its academic year on August 19, with classes starting August 24.