America doesn’t need another law school. Period. But that isn’t stopping Erwin Chemerinsky (known to Bar/Bri students as the whiny ConLaw guru) from reinventing the JD in a bold attempt to rank the yet-to-launch University of California, Irvine Law School among the nation’s elite. If it works, Chemerinsky will be heralded as a genius for achieving the impossible; but if it flops, he’ll likely be branded as a dreamer who tried—and failed—to conjure a top-tier law school out of thin air. Time will tell, but right now both scenarios seem equally plausible.
By nearly every measure, Orange County, California is about as far as you can get from the Ivory Towers that dot the East Coast. The area is synonymous with MILFs (The Real Housewives of Orange County), surfers (Jake Kasdan’s Orange County) and In-N-Outs (the regional burger joint famously referenced in The Big Lebowski). But despite a distinctly SoCal vibe, The OC is a huge, fast-growing metropolitan area with numerous Fortune 500 companies, scores of startups, and the kind of wealth that competes with places like Connecticut’s Fairfield County.
But what The OC doesn’t have is a top-tier law school.
Enter The University of California system, which has pumped tens of millions into making UCI an academic powerhouse on par with schools like UCLA and Berkeley, that will now tackle inventing a new JD program with the diminutive Chemerinsky at the helm—and donors to back him.
But where others might have sought to mimic UCLA or Boalt, Chemerinsky says his goal is to use the fast-growing institution of UC, Irvine to reinvent the law degree.
“The main defect with law school is that it doesn’t prepare students for practice,” Chemerinsky explains from an office dominated by books and candy. “It teaches analytical reasoning very well, but students leave [elite law schools] without any real understanding of the profession.”
Chemerinsky, a former law professor at both Duke and USC, says he asked his founding faculty, many of whom were plucked from tenured slots at elite law schools (Stanford, Georgetown and Boalt, to name a few) to think outside the box when designing the dream school.
Over the past year, Chemerinsky’s recruits did just that, attempting to put the UCI Anteaters (yep, Anteaters) in a position to some day stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Blue Devils and Trojans of Chemerinksky’s academic past.
What does an Anteater stand to learn year one?
At a glance, UCI’s first-year curriculum doesn’t reveal any of the staple classes. Torts, Contracts and Civil Procedure are nowhere to be found. Instead, students will take classes with less familiar names: Common Law Analysis, Lawyering Skills, and Legal Profession. But underneath the strange names, the faculty will impart lessons designed to help their graduates hit the ground running—they hope.
“We want to emphasize the economics of the profession, fact-finding and negotiation, for example,” Chemerinsky explains. “All of the usual doctrines will be taught, but they will be filtered through a new model.”
Beyond the classroom, UCI is also looking to arm its inaugural class with something no other law school can offer—a debt-free education. While that program won’t continue beyond the first class, Chemerinsky is betting that the appeal of a free JD will attract Ivy League-caliber applicants who will catapult UCI into the top-20.
The Likelihood of Failure
For all the talk of a new model, UCI won’t amount to much if it fails to rank among the nation’s best law schools.
“[Rankings] do matter,” Chemerinsky says in a regrettable tone. “I wish I could say no—they don’t make a difference. But the reality is that rankings are what attract top-quality professors and students.”
Chemerinsky isn’t alone on this. A recent report from two sociology professors who interviewed more than 100 law school professors and administrators calls rankings an “arbitrary yardstick” that can have a debilitating effect on law schools.
And for a new law school—even one with established professors—attracting quality applicants remains a huge question mark best answered by high rankings.
One anonymous student says she was tempted by Chemerinsky’s vision, but in the end, uncertainty kept her from even applying.
“[A] brand-new law school made me a bit apprehensive based on the lack of reputation or ranking,” Cindy says. “The assurance of top-20 from the admissions office is nice, but I can’t help but doubt if their promise can be kept. How can they know 100 percent that it will be a top-20 law school?”
The truth is they can’t—there are no guarantees in life or law.
Instead, Cindy opted to play it safe and apply to schools like Duke and Georgetown.
Similarly, other lawyers and law students who spoke with Bitter Lawyer expressed doubt at that one could simply create a top-tier law school from scratch. Rankings, after all, draw deeply on LSATs and grades, and those with high marks are likely to have other, less-risky offers.
The Potential for Success
While there’s no shortage of naysayers, cracking the ranks isn’t outside the realm of possibilities. And the truth is that, if it can be done, it will be done in Irvine. So far, UCI reports that it receives 50 applications per day. Chemerinsky says the applicants are of a very high caliber.
That claim isn’t surprising to “James,” a California lawyer and educator who counsels undergrads about law school.
Speaking to Bitter Lawyer on the condition of anonymity, James thinks UCI may have a good chance of joining the nation’s elite law schools. Especially if you factor in UCI’s offer of a free education (even though it only extends to the first class) in a down economy.
“UCI is a good bet in a lot of ways,” James explains. “For one thing, it’s a great regional, niche play because there really aren’t any elite law schools South of Los Angeles. UCI is definitely on the radar of a lot of really strong applicants. I’ll be surprised if they don’t bring in an excellent inaugural class.”
But will James recommend UCI to the elite students he counsels?
There the answer gets a little murky. According to James, fears associated with the uncertainty of a new school are valid. And for students with options at schools with established reputations, the safe bet is to steer clear of UCI. Still, UCI should be able to find what they’re looking for when you consider the numbers game.
“They’re only going after 60 students,” James says. “So, it’s entirely possible that they can find people who have great grades and LSATs, but who are also excited about rolling the dice to be part of a new venture.”
It’s that kind of student—one with the quantifiable stats valued by U.S. News and World Report AND intangibles that make them a potential legal “all-star”—that Chemerinsky is hoping to attract. But the better the applicant, the more likely they are to see UCI as one of many potential options.
Consider Lauren, a student recently accepted to UCI, which was the only school she applied to this year after turning down a top-20 law school the previous year because of financial concerns. With credentials from an elite liberal arts school and a graduate degree, Lauren says UCI’s unproven track record isn’t an issue.
For every applicant like Lauren, Chemerinsky says he’s thrilled to see dozens more with skill sets that really impress him, and he has high hopes for the 60 students who will study law in Irvine next semester.
Once UCI find its 60 inaugural students, matriculating them will only be the beginning.
James, who also recruits for a top-20 law school, says job placement and average starting salary dictate the long-term success of any law school when it comes to attracting great students.
But driving up starting salary and the percentage of graduates working for BigLaw isn’t an immediate priority at UCI, which has a stated interest in graduating “superstar” lawyers keen to do public interest and government work.
To build a reputation on that kind of student, UCI will need two things in a hurry. First, Chemerinsky will need to find a killer career counselor with a rolodex and a reputation strong enough to crack open opportunities that students at top-20 law schools wait in line for. With that search underway, Chemerinsky says he’s taking a personal role in finding the right candidate.
But no matter how good the career counselor, UCI’s initial graduates will need to make a quick name for themselves—and their school—within the first few years of entering practice. And that means there better be a couple of wunderkinds in the class of 2012. That’s the only way the nation’s top employers (whether BigLaw, government or public interest) will come beating down Chemerinsky’s door looking for elite lawyers. The bad news is that every top-tier school in America has a massive head start on Irvine.
In the end, it comes down to 60 yet-to-be-identified individuals, and if that first class doesn’t knock it out of the park, UCI will be just another law school with a TTT reputation among the malcontents on JD Underground.