Costa Mesa's Whittier Law School will stop accepting new students and plans to close amid concern over low student achievement

After more than 50 years of instruction — 20 of them in Costa Mesa — Whittier Law School will stop accepting new students this fall as it plans to cease operations once all current students have graduated, officials announced this week.

Whittier Law is part of Whittier College, and members of the college's board of trustees approved the steps last week, according to a letter from board Chairman Alan Lund that was posted on the school’s website.

“We believe we have looked at every realistic option to continue a successful law program,” Lund wrote. “Unfortunately, these efforts did not lead to a desired outcome.

“At the appropriate time,” he added, “the program of legal education will be discontinued.”

Whittier College President Sharon Herzberger said in an interview that the board “was concerned about the student outcomes at the law school” — namely how many students were graduating, passing the bar exam and finding employment in the legal profession.

Students, staff and faculty learned of the decision Wednesday, according to Marc Stevens, the school’s director of communications and marketing.

“We’re not closing the doors today,” he said in an interview. “What it means is we are not admitting a new class for the fall of 2017, but we will honor our commitment to the students who are still here.”

In a statement on the school’s website, Whittier Law officials said they are “obviously devastated” by the board’s decision and believe it “was unwise, unwarranted and unfounded.”

“For more than 50 years, we have provided a high-quality education to students of diverse backgrounds and abilities — students who might not otherwise have been able to receive a legal education and who are now serving justice and enterprise around the world,” according to the post, which was attributed to the law school as a whole.

Whittier Law was founded in 1966 and moved to its current campus at 3333 Harbor Blvd. in 1997.

Stevens said about 400 students currently attend the school. Its program typically takes about three years to complete.

Herzberger said the focus in coming weeks will be on developing a plan “for making sure our current students have the opportunity to complete their legal education.”

“When we develop that plan and we know that we can ensure that our students can complete their degrees, then the program can be discontinued,” she said.

Some students weren’t happy with the decision.

“Dropping this bomb on all of us three weeks before final exams and commencement ceremony demonstrates a lack of loyalty to everyone, especially the students,” Antonia Reyes, a second-year student at the law school, wrote in an email.

School administration did not give students or faculty the opportunity to ask questions about the decision in emergency meetings this week or explain the logistics of the closing, Reyes said.

In July 2015, 38% of Whittier Law graduates who were taking the California bar exam for the first time passed it. That’s about 20 percentage points lower than the 59.7% statewide pass rate for first-timers.

According to preliminary American Bar Assn. data, about 30% of 2016 Whittier Law School graduates were hired in full-time, long-term attorney positions.

In 2015, the Whittier College board formed a subcommittee to examine the future of the law school, an effort that “included working with the administration and faculty to redirect resources and efforts to improve student outcomes,” according to Lund.

In his letter, Lund wrote that the board had “conversations with entities capable of investing in, merging with or acquiring the law school.”

“For the last two years,” Herzberger said, “we’ve really been focused on those options and in particular this possibility of being acquired by another entity. But in the end, none of these options seemed to lead to a plan that the board could accept, and the decision was to discontinue the program.”

Whittier Law’s statement acknowledged that “the last few years have been extremely difficult for law schools across the country” but said the school had taken “significant steps” to address the challenges.

“Sadly, our sponsoring institution opted to abandon the law school rather than provide the time and resources needed to finish paving the path to ongoing viability and success,” the statement said.

Los Angeles Times staff writers Sonali Kohli and Rosanna Xia contributed to this report.

luke.money@latimes.com

Twitter @LukeMMoney

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