UCI Law School Debuts with High Aspirations

After an intense year of planning a curriculum, hiring faculty, recruiting students and enjoying positive press, UC Irvine Law School is up and running. The two buildings at East Peltason Drive and Campus Drive, which were previously filled with quiet offices, are now overrun with law students and faculty. The courtyard between the buildings now boasts its very own coffee cart.

On Thursday, September 17, UCI Law School celebrated its four-week anniversary with sandwiches, chips and a follow-up orientation; students referred to it as the “one-month-check-in.” Dean of Student Services and Admissions, Victoria Ortiz, gave the students a reality check about what they’ve been through so far, and what’s still to come in the upcoming months.

When Ortiz congratulated the students for making it this far, they responded with an enthusiastic round of applause. Her final reminder was met with even louder applause: May 5, 2012 was the date to remember – the day that the UCI Law inaugural class of 60 students will graduate with Juris Doctorates.

Perhaps it was the promise of tuition-free law school for three years. Perhaps it was founding Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, one of the most cited legal scholars alive. Perhaps it was the world-class faculty, hailing from top-20 law schools nationwide. Whatever it was, something convinced each of the students, aged 20 to 38, to decline their acceptances at other highly ranked, established law schools and to commit to the new law school at UCI.

37–year-old Lori Speak studied English as an undergraduate at Biola University. She earned a Masters degree in Divinity and worked in a ministry for several years before considering a career in law. As her 16-year-old son Justin began thinking about college, Speak decided to return to school as well. Although she applied to several schools in Los Angeles and Orange Country, she chose UCI Law to stay local. “Justin has been very excited and supportive of the adjustment,” she said.

Another student-parent, 36-year-old Steve Sandis, decided to return to law school after pursuing a career in education. As an idealistic high school student, he dreamed of founding his own high school. He entered college at UC San Diego before transferring to Georgetown, where he received a degree in international relations.

When he learned in a political theory class at Georgetown that Plato and Aristotle had founded academies, he expanded his dream. “I wanted to build a school that would outlive me, that would last more than 1000 years,” Sandis said.

To build his contacts and credibility, Sandis earned a masters degree in education from Stanford, teacher credentials from Notre Dame De Namur University and half of an MBA from Santa Clara University. At the age of 33, several decades sooner than he had expected, Steve’s dream was realized. He founded Oakland High School and served as its very young dean for its first year. Though he left the school to be a full-time dad to his daughter, Emerson, he stayed involved in education by teaching an SAT preparation course and an AP American Government class.

When Sandis decided to pursue his other, unfulfilled passion and apply for law school, friends told him that Dean Chemerinsky was working on a new law school at UCI. He turned down acceptances at Hastings, Davis and Santa Clara to come to UCI. Though the reversal from educator to student has been somewhat weird for him, he has gotten right back into student mode. He is enjoying his heavy workload of five classes and is excited to be part of a new institution.

UCI undergraduates are also excited about the new law school. Greg Yeh, a fourth-year criminology, law & society and Chinese double major, is thinking of applying for fall of 2011. “I was skeptical at first, but after working as a research assistant at the law school and hearing Dean Chemerinsky discuss his expectations, I think UCI Law will reach its goal of becoming a top twenty law school,” Yeh said.

With a 4% acceptance rate in its first year, UCI Law has been the most selective law school in the country. Of the 2,741 applicants for the inaugural class, only 110 students were accepted. High-caliber students and selectivity demonstrate that UCI Law school is well on its way to achieve its goal.