Western State Law School Sues Bar Assn.

By Mike Anton
LA Times Staff Writer

January 20, 2004

Western State University College of Law in Fullerton has sued the American Bar Assn., alleging that the organization is unfairly seeking to strip the school of its national accreditation because it has a "historic hostility" toward for-profit law schools.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, also says the ABA is violating its own procedures and seeks an injunction to prevent the group's House of Delegates from voting to withdraw Western State's provisional approval when it meets in early February.

The ABA granted Western State provisional approval in 1998 and gave the school up to five years to improve its academic standards and qualify for full accreditation widely considered the gold standard in legal education.

Since then, ABA officials have visited Western State several times to evaluate its progress but have repeatedly concluded that its academic standards fall short. The ABA has criticized low student entrance exam scores, the school's dropout rate and the percentage of graduates who pass the bar.

In July 2003, for example, 46% of Western State's graduates who took the bar exam for the first time passed up from 34% two years earlier.

The average pass rate last year among ABA-approved law schools in California was 72%. Stanford University scored highest with 92%.

Western State officials say the improvement in their bar exam results and other academic benchmarks during the two years since the school was bought by Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp. show progress is being made. They want the ABA to extend its provisional approval beyond the five years something that's been done at least seven times since the mid-1970s at other law schools, according to the suit.

Don Daucher, a lawyer for Western State, said the ABA has never failed to extend provisional approval "unless the school was being sold or was going out of business. If you've got a school that's improving, it doesn't make any sense for them to do what they're doing."

Daucher said the ABA has historically looked down at for-profit law schools. He said that in 1996, after an antitrust action brought by the U.S. Justice Department, the ABA settled, in part, by agreeing not to discriminate against commercial law programs.

There are 186 law schools nationwide with provisional or full approval from the ABA. Western State is one of only two that are for-profit, according to the school's lawsuit.

An ABA spokeswoman said the organization doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Losing ABA approval would hurt Western State's ability to recruit students, who pay $12,340 a semester for a full-time load. The student body of about 450 is nearly evenly split between full time and part time.

The ABA's decision would complicate the ability of graduates to take the bar exam by adding preliminary steps and undercut their marketability. Two students joined Western State's lawsuit as plaintiffs.

"Students who are going there now are facing a period of uncertainty," Daucher said. "And we're trying to end that uncertainty as soon as we can."

Gaining ABA approval can be a tough, drawn-out process. Orange County's two other law schools Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa and Chapman University's School of Law in Orange had their own struggles in gaining ABA approval.

Western State, founded in 1966, was Orange County's first law school.