American Bar Assn. accreditation brings the commercial law school prestige and allows its graduates to take the bar exam anywhere in the country.
If the school loses the designation, few states, if any, other than
California will allow its graduates to sit for the exam required to practice
law, and even in California the students would have to take extra steps before
they could take the test.
Western received provisional accreditation from the ABA in 1998, a step toward gaining full accreditation, which usually comes three to five years later.
The ABA is concerned about the low number of students passing the bar, low Law School Aptitude Test scores and the high number of dropouts, said Don Daucher, Western's lawyer.
Daucher said those concerns make no sense because the law school has improved in those areas since it was granted provisional accreditation, and the school's library and faculty are also better than in 1998.
"I guarantee there are law schools with worse numbers that are fully approved," he said.
Jackie Muller, a spokeswoman for Western's corporate parent, said it is considering suing the ABA.
"We believe we've earned the right to full accreditation status, or at least a two-year extension of provisional status," she said.
The ABA declined to comment, saying in a written statement that details of a law school's accreditation application are confidential.
ABA approval, the highest accreditation a law school can receive, denotes quality to potential employers.
Major law schools such as Harvard, UCLA and Stanford have ABA approval, as do some lesser-known schools such as the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and the William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota.
The State Bar of California also accredits law schools, but graduates of institutions with only state accreditation, with few exceptions, can take only the California bar exam.
Students at unaccredited schools must pass the state's First-Year Law Students' Examination, known as the "Baby Bar," and attend an extra year of classes before they are eligible to take the bar exam.
The ABA has fully accredited 181 law schools and has given provisional approval to five others. Among them all, only two are for-profit, Western and Florida Coastal.
Daucher said the ABA has a history of antipathy toward commercial law schools — schools without a link to a university.
He said the ABA signed a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in 1996 agreeing it would not prevent for-profit schools from receiving accreditation.
Daucher said the law school is working with the State Bar of California to gain its accreditation, a move that would allow graduates to take the state bar exam.
However, graduates of only California-accredited law schools are not allowed to take the bar exam in most states.
Western is one of three ABA-accredited law schools in Orange County. The others are Whittier in Costa Mesa and Chapman University in Orange, which had its own struggles gaining accreditation.
ABA spokeswoman Nancy Slonim said no school has had its provisional approval rescinded in at least the 23 years she has worked in media relations for the organization.
Scott Howe, associate dean for academic affairs at Chapman's law school, said that ABA designation is "very important in terms of attracting high-quality students."
Western was founded in 1966 as the first law school in Orange County. It was established to cater to those who worked and needed to attend school part time.
In 2000, Western was bought by Argosy Education Group of Chicago. A year later, it was sold to Education Management Group of Pittsburgh, which operates 30 campuses in North America offering a variety of subjects.
In recent years, Western also has attracted more full-time students. During the semester that ended last week, 221 part-time and 228 full-time students were enrolled.
Tuition is $12,340 per semester for full-time students and $8,300 a semester for part-timers.
Forty-four percent of Western's graduates who took the bar examination for the first time in July 2002 passed, compared with 42% at Whittier and 71% at Chapman.
UCLA led the state with 93%, UC Berkeley and Stanford scored 85%, and USC 81%.
According to the State Bar, the passing rate was 64.5% for applicants who took the California bar exam for the first time in July 2002. Among California schools that were ABA-approved, the success rate was 68.5%.
Western's application for full accreditation was first denied in June, Daucher said. Muller, the spokeswoman, said the school has lost two attempts to overturn the decision.
The ABA's board of governors is expected to make the final ruling in February.
Daucher said the dispute already has affected the school.
He said the number of students who paid deposits but didn't show up for school was greater than expected, and more students than usual have transferred.
"We're going to be hurting in terms of students who will come here in the future," he said.