Saturday, December 20, 2003
Jury's out on law school's future
Western State University, O.C.'s oldest law college, is in danger of losing its ABA accreditation.
FULLERTON – Orange County's oldest law school faces the loss of its American Bar Association accreditation because of high attrition rates and low bar exam pass rates.
If Western State University College of Law loses its appeal in February, its graduating students might not be able to take their bar exams in July.
The Fullerton-based college has lost two attempts to overturn the decision, made by a bar association council that oversees law school education.
The matter is now in the hands of the bar association's delegate assembly.
Acting Dean Maryann Jones wrote to students and faculty this week, telling them the college intends to fight what she describes as an unfair decision.
"We believe the council was not only wrong, but acted prematurely," Jones wrote.
Western State opened in 1966 as the only accredited law school in Orange County, and has since educated a generation of lawyers and judges in Orange County. By one estimate, one-quarter of the county's lawyers attended Western State.
It won coveted provisional accreditation five years ago from the bar association.
Now, after being sold and then merged into one of the nation's largest for-profit, publicly traded education corporations, the law school could be facing the most important fight of its life.
Bar association approval is critical to a law school's ability to attract good students because prestigious law firms are less likely to consider graduates from nonaccredited colleges.
Also, graduates of American Bar Association-approved schools are able to sit for bar exams in any state.
Colleges that aren't able to meet these standards must rely strictly on California State Bar accreditation, which allows their students to take this state's bar exam only.
But the college's State Bar status is also up in the air.
Before winning provisional American Bar Association approval in 1998, Western State was accredited by the California State Committee of Bar Examiners, which enabled its students to sit for the California Bar exam.
But the college did not renew that accreditation, expecting that it would receive permanent approval from the American Bar Association.
The college has applied for its state accreditation so that its 500 graduates can take the California Bar exam in July.
Some students were distressed this week about whether they will be able to sit for the bar in July; others are worried about the college's long-term reputation.
"One of the issues is that they charge a lot of money – $36,000 a year," first-year student Justin Eiser said. "I don't foresee them lowering their prices if they lose accreditation."
During the past five years, Western went from being a small, privately held school to becoming part of the national Argosy University chain.
That chain was subsequently merged into the publicly traded Education Management Corp., based in Pittsburgh.
In April, the American Bar Association's accreditation committee found that the college didn't completely meet standards, citing a lack of faculty scholarship, poor student attrition rates, poor bar pass rates and a drastic cut in the library budget.
The percentage of WSU graduates who passed the February 2003 bar exam on the first try was 41 percent, according to state bar statistics, compared with 73 percent at Chapman University, 86 percent at the University of California, Los Angeles, and 25 percent at Whittier Law School.
The average bar pass rate for California's American Bar Association-approved schools in February was 57 percent.
In June, the bar association's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar rejected Western State's request that its provisional accreditation be extended due to "extraordinary cause."
Western State presented arguments at meetings in November and December but failed to persuade council members to withdraw their recommendation. The college did, however, convince the committee that its library had improved.
Now the college plans to present its case directly to the bar association's national House of Delegates at a February meeting.
Attorney Don Daucher was hired to represent the college and said he believes the American Bar Association is hostile to for-profit law schools like Western. He cited a U.S. Justice Department antitrust suit and subsequent 1995 consent decree under which the bar association agreed for the first time to accredit proprietary schools.
Since Education Management Corp. took over, the college has seen its test scores and bar pass rates rise, Daucher said. The dean wrote to the ABA accreditation committee again Friday, requesting that it reconsider its recommendation.
"This is a school that has improved remarkably in the last two years," Daucher said.