IRVINE, CA (AP) - A new law school opening next fall in Southern California is offering a big incentive to top students who might be thinking twice about the cost of a legal education during the recession: free tuition for three years.
The financial carrot is part of an ambitious strategy by Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned constitutional law scholar and dean of the new school at the University of California, Irvine, to attract Ivy League-caliber students to the first public university law school in the state in 40 years. Scholarship winners will be chosen for their potential to emerge three years later as legal stars on the ascendance. Only the best and brightest need apply, but the school hopes to offer full scholarships to all 60 members of its inaugural class in 2009. Subsequent classes will be on a normal tuition basis.
Chemerinsky is convinced the prospect of free education , combined with a public-interest curriculum and the University of California moniker, will quickly fill his first class and eventually land Irvine among the nation's best law schools. "Our goal is to be a top 20 law school from the first time we are ranked," he said.
Such a rapid rise to prominence would be unprecedented, but not impossible, said Richard Morgan, the founding dean of Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1998, when that state had no law school. "It's like trying to fly the plane while you're still building it," he said. Morgan warned that starting a new law school is daunting, and that the competition for top-notch students is fierce.
There are 200 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, including two new schools in North Carolina. Several others are in the planning stages in New York state, and dozens of unaccredited schools operate across the country. At last count, 141,719 students were enrolled in ABA-accredited schools.
"During an economic downturn there is historically an increase in law school applications," Chemerinsky said, explaining it's an attractive option for undergrads with poor job prospects. Luring top students hasn't been the only challenge for Chemerinsky, an unapologetic liberal. A year ago, he was a professor at Duke University when he was tapped to be dean of the new school in the heart of conservative Orange County.
He was soon fired amid concerns about his liberal politics, as evidenced on numerous occasions during his 21 years as a professor at the University of Southern California. He was rehired in the span of a weekend after campus protests and editorials cited his treatment while making the case for academic freedom. Chemerinsky insists the law school will have no ideological orientation. In a signal that political hatchets have been buried, Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake, who hired, fired and rehired him, will jointly teach a course in civil rights law when the school opens.
With the dustup settled, Chemerinsky has plunged ahead, hiring 19 law professors and administrators, including some who are abandoning jobs at prestigious universities. The school hopes to eventually enroll 600 students and employ 40 to 50 professors. Rachel Moran, president-elect of the Association of American Law Schools, is leaving her longtime post at the University of California, Berkeley's revered Boalt Hall to teach at Irvine. She likens it to a "Star Trek" adventure.
"You're going where nobody's gone before," she said. "I feel that it's going to be a remarkable ride." A law school has been part of the UC Irvine's long-term plan since the university opened in 1965, according to the school's Web site. Its cost was incorporated into the campus growth plan, and Chemerinsky says no additional state funds will be needed to cover its estimated first year costs of $25 million.
Some money has been saved by housing the school in existing campus buildings. It's also the beneficiary of a $20 million startup grant from Donald Bren, chairman of the giant Irvine Co. development firm, and a $1 million grant from the Joan Irvine Smith and Athalie R. Clarke Foundation that will pay for the core collection at the law library. Other Orange County businesses and law firms are pledging sizable donations to bolster an ambitious $100 million fundraising effort during the next 10 years.
Chemerinsky said he has made substantial progress toward raising the $6 million needed to fund full scholarships for his inaugural class. He's promising students a unique education al program with hands-on experience in legal clinics and eventual job interviews with more than 70 law firms, public interest law organizations and government offices. Still, in a society seemingly overloaded with lawyers, the question arises: Do we need another law school to churn out more lawyers? "There isn't a need for another law school like all the rest," Chemerinsky answers. "This is our chance to create the ideal law school for the 21st century."
On the Net: UC-Irvine: http://www.uci.edu/