Dan Walters: Was UC Irvine's law school really necessary?

dwalters@sacbee.comApril 8, 2013 

Six years ago, yours truly wrote a column about a proposed law school at the University of California's Irvine campus, suggesting that it was more about academic ego and Orange County boosterism than a shortage of lawyers.

The column pointed out that the state already had 25 accredited law schools and the number of graduates taking the State Bar examination had been rising steadily to nearly 7,000 a year.

It also cited a study by the California Postsecondary Education Commission's staff, concluding that there was simply no need for another law school, especially one whose construction and operation partially depended on public funds.

The CPEC said, "The current growth in the number of bar-certified lawyers will keep pace with or exceed legal demand between now and 2014," and "knowledge needs in the domain of legal education can be met by existing public and independent law schools."

The report went on to admonish UC Irvine on its cost projections, saying they were "questionable because the need for a new public law school has not been demonstrated by the evidence contained in the proposal."

UC – both its Irvine campus and the statewide Board of Regents – ignored the commission's criticism and created the law school anyway.

Fast forward to 2012. The UCI law school graduated its first class and boasted that 46 of its 51 graduates who took the State Bar examination passed.

"We are extraordinarily pleased that our first graduating class had such a tremendous showing," UCI Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said in a press release. "It reflects not only the high academic merit of the students but also the strength of our educational program."

Fast forward again.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy article describing the angst felt by recent law school graduates who cannot find jobs while struggling to repay huge loans they took out to finance their legal educations.

A sluggish economy, advances in legal research technology and other factors, the article said, have resulted in a glut of unemployed lawyers.

The Times quoted State Bar Executive Director Joseph Dunn – a former state senator from Orange County, ironically enough – that while there have been lawyer gluts in the past, "I don't think any of them rival the situation we are seeing today."

And how are some of these unemployed lawyers spending their time? The Times reported that some are suing their law schools for overpromising their prospects of becoming well-paid attorneys.

In other words, CPEC was absolutely correct six years ago in concluding that the state had more than enough lawyers and didn't need another expensive, taxpayer-subsidized law school.

There is – or should be – a lesson in this tale.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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