The Top Tier Law School Experiment: UC Irvine School of Law

The Washington Post recently published a piece titled: “Will law school students have jobs after they graduate?” It is one of many articles in the mainstream media questioning the value of a law school education when both tuition is rising and job prospects are falling.
The article highlights UC Irvine School of Law, a new law school with the present goal of achieving top-tier status. Based on the numbers I have seen so far, I suspect that UCI Law is gunning for the top 20 in the US News and World Report rankings.

Initially, the law school sought approval from the California Postsecondary Education Commission in 2007 by arguing that UCI Law was addressing a growing need for public service lawyers.
The California Postsecondary Education Commission rejected UCI’s proposal mainly for three reasons:
1) The occupational and industry projections of the California Legal Market Information Division indicate that the current growth in the number of Bar-certified lawyers will keep pace with or exceed legal demand between now and 2014.
2) The State’s knowledge needs in the domain of legal education can be met by existing public and independent law schools.
3) The projected public costs are questionable because the need for a new public law school has not been demonstrated by the evidence contained in the proposal.
Basically, the CPEC report said what everyone knew all along for a VERY long time: We don’t need a new law school because California has enough lawyers as it is. There will be enough lawyers to fill the public service need.
UCI ignored the recommendation and began the project with the help of large private backers.
Since the “public service need” argument was laughably rejected, UCI Law next tried to argue that they want to fill another “unmet need”: a top tier law school. The WaPo article quotes UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky stating that Irvine, “puts far more emphasis on preparing students to be lawyers at the highest level of the profession than perhaps other schools.”
The Dean’s words are vague enough to survive a fraud or negligent misrepresentation lawsuit from former students. During a time when there is not enough law related jobs for graduates, even during a time of economic boom, why would someone want to open up a new law school? I have several suspicions.
First, I suspect UCI was suffering from prestige envy. UCI’s insiders have been wanting a law school for at least ten years. The University of California has two big names: UC Berkeley and UCLA. They both have solid academic credentials and are modest contenders in the PAC-12. UCI has a medical school and a business school so why not complete the professional school trifecta by adding a law school? More professional graduate programs MUST mean you are a good university, right?
Second, UCI needed a new revenue source because California has been cutting its education budget significantly over the last few years. Operating a law school is relatively cheap as it does not require a whole lot of expensive specialized machinery. And with tuition at $53,000 per year for nonresidents, this can be a substantial revenue source. But you can only get away with charging this kind of tuition by achieving top-tier status.
The deciders at UCI Law have set themselves up to obtain top-tier status. They hired faculty from top law schools and made no secret about this. They admitted only 56 students with GPAs and LSAT scores rivaling the top 10. I am guessing they have a decent law library too.
So what are the results of this experiment so far? The first class of UCI Law graduated in May of 2012. The WaPo article states that 80 percent of its class of 56 found full time jobs. In other words, about 45 of 56 UCI law grads found full time jobs.
I hope Dean Chemerinsky has an explanation for the remaining 11. While 80% employment is good considering most reputable law schools’ post-graduation employment rates are less than 50%, I had higher expectations for UCI law. I expected 50-55 students should have had full-time legal positions requiring a law degree. With a small class size with outstanding entrance credentials being taught by top faculty, I expected better outcomes. Is a 95% employment rate too much to ask for? Others are doing it.
To be continued.

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