American Bar Association Again
Gavels Down Western State Law School
Orange County Register
Orange County's oldest law school took another hit Thursday in its ongoing quest for a national profile.

Western State University College of Law lost a last-minute appeal to keep its American Bar Association accreditation, potentially affecting more than 100 students graduating next year. About 100 seniors taking the bar exam in July won't be affected.

"The (fate) of next year's graduating class is still up in the air," Western attorney Don Daucher said.

The final decision will be made in August by the ABA's House of Delegates.

In a letter to Western, the bar association said the for-profit school continues to suffer from high attrition rates and low bar exam scores.

"Western State has not established that it maintains an educational program that prepares its graduates for admission to the bar," the ABA said.

The ABA declined to comment further Thursday. The decision was issued after the bar granted Western a special appeal hearing Sunday. The hearing followed the accreditation committee's recommendation last year to revoke Western's provisional status.

Bar association approval is critical to a law school's ability to attract top students because prestigious law firms are less likely to consider graduates from nonaccredited schools. Graduates from ABA-sanctioned schools also are permitted to sit for bar exams in any state.

"I am very disappointed with the decision," part-time student Steven Holtkamp said. "I know that everyone associated with WSU -- administration, faculty and students -- have been working tirelessly on this issue, and I have every confidence that they will continue to do what is right and necessary to protect the reputation and standing of the school."

After the committee recommended that Western's provisional status be withdrawn, Western sued the ABA, alleging that it was biased against for-profit schools.

"We took the position that we weren't going to abandon our students," Daucher said.

The ABA agreed to grant Western the emergency appeal hearing.

First-year student Soojin Kim is unsure what she'll do, but she'd like to stay.

"Besides the accreditation (issues), everything else is great," Kim said. "We'll see what happens."

Western, which produces many of the county's practicing attorneys, has struggled for years to gain acceptance.

Before 1998, the law school could get accreditation only from the California State Committee of Bar Examiners, enabling its students to sit for the state exam. During that time, Western got stiff competition when two new schools arrived: Chapman University College of Law and Whittier Law School.

"For many years, they were all the county had, and I'm sure Chapman and Whittier took some of their students," said Federico Sayre, president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Orange County.

After securing provisional status with the ABA in 1998, Western took a risk and decided not to renew its state accreditation -- which may hurt the school if its national accreditation is yanked.

"If graduates never leave Orange County (to practice law), the loss of the accreditation may not make a difference. But if they want to practice out of state, it will really affect them," Sayre said.

Still, the ABA may have offered the school an olive branch. In its letter, the ABA said Western could reapply for another five-year provisional accreditation if the delegates revoke its accreditation. The bar also would waive the customary 10-month waiting period.

Daucher said Western could sue to try to block the August vote or hope the ABA grants provisional status before next year's graduating class takes the bar exam.

"I'm not sure what we are going to do," he said.