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From the President

A fresh look at California’s law schools

By Howard B. Miller
President, State Bar of California

Howard MillerIn the most important sense, California no longer has public law schools. Though part of the University of California, the law schools at Berkeley, UCLA, Hastings, Davis and UCI are no longer “public” in the sense most have understood that term — available at low cost to qualified students. Their tuition, now at or approaching $40,000 a year, is in the same category as Stanford and USC, which also have at least an equal amount of scholarship and loan money for students as the “public” law schools.

With fees, books and living costs added, the total cost for three years at all those law schools approximates $200,000 for most students, largely covered by loans. This at a time when lawyers are losing jobs and graduates can’t find them — to a fair extent because of structural changes in the legal profession, not solely because of the business cycle.

For most graduates of those and other ABA-accredited schools in California, all of which do a fine job of traditional legal education, the standard model of a career path has been to find employment either in private firms or public agencies. That is what elite legal education over the past half century has trained them for. And those jobs, in an important sense, completed legal education and provided resources and a base to pay back the loans.


In California we also have another model for legal education: schools that are not accredited by the ABA. They are regulated by the State Bar through the Committee of Bar Examiners. Some are accredited by the CBE. There are also “unaccredited” law schools that at one time could be established initially through the California Postsecondary Education Commission. Following legislation four years ago, all formation and regulation of those schools was transferred to the Committee of Bar Examiners. There are differences between California accredited and unaccredited (now also called “regulated”) law schools. Accredited schools have different standards, among other things, for facilities and libraries than do unaccredited schools. And students at unaccredited schools must all take and pass the “Baby Bar,” a one-day mini-bar exam on basic subjects, in order to continue in law.

There also are interesting differences between ABA-accredited law schools and the California CBE schools, accredited and unaccredited, as a whole. The ABA schools have significantly higher pass rates on the California bar exam than do the California CBE schools — all of which is transparent on the State Bar website. They also have different student bodies and other differences that provide opportunities as well as requiring careful regulation. Some of the California CBE schools are less expensive and some, individually, are more expensive than the ABA schools.


It is a series of other differences that make CBE-accredited schools most interesting for the California legal profession: geography; access and availability of legal education, especially to minorities; technology; providing a legal education and background to groups who otherwise would not be reached; and the nature of clients and the legal needs that graduates will serve.

In terms of geography, of the 20 ABA law schools in California, 17 are in coastal county urban areas. Of the three not on the coast, two are in an inland urban area and only one could reasonably be said to be in a non-coastal non-urban area. That means that a large part of California’s population that might want access to part time legal education has no local alternative except the California CBE schools.

In addition, different unique local populations can access legal education and understanding. A California-accredited law school in Monterey has students from the national security, public policy and environmental communities that would otherwise be unable to gain exposure to the American legal system.

Wide access to legal education is also a long American tradition. Because of the ABA schools’ focus on the U.S. News rankings, which involve LSAT scores, significant numbers of potential students who would benefit from exposure to legal education will not be accepted at the ABA schools, no matter what their talent and potential. The California CBE schools do function as “opportunity schools,” providing exposure to the law that many minority students would otherwise not have. The ratio of diversity at California CBE schools is significantly higher than at the ABA schools.


As California CBE schools take the lead in technological developments, the range of those who can obtain legal education has expanded. One California unaccredited school that may have the most sophisticated distance learning system in the U.S. may also have the most credentialed student body of any law school in the country. At its graduation two years ago, the valedictorian of the class was a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology (the equivalent of Caltech or MIT) with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from U.C. Berkeley. He was not unique. In the graduating class were more Ph.D.’s, MD’s and MBA’s than I have seen at any other law school. It was only distance learning at a technologically advanced California law school that gave these predominantly mid-career adults the chance to learn the law.

Given the growing use and necessity of understanding technology as lawyers, one of the things the CBE must wrestle with is how functional is its continued insistence of fixed facilities libraries with standard and expensive volumes of books. Certainly in today’s world the ability of a lawyer to search electronically is far more important than knowing how to use a card catalog or thumb through a physical book volume. Both are useful; one today is essential.

Finally, graduates of the California CBE schools most likely will serve underserved clients — those in local communities who need help in family law and other basic daily legal needs, including minority clients, especially those with language barriers, who do not have an easy time finding lawyers.

For all these reasons, as the State Bar and CBE meet their responsibilities to regulate California law schools, we must also understand the value and opportunity they provide and remove vestigial obstacles to their success while nurturing their future.