Finishing up a solid academic career at the University of Wisconsin a few years ago, Ron Bethia Jr. had big plans: graduation, law school, perhaps a law practice and politics.
Then came disaster.
Never a good test taker, Bethia did miserably on his law school admissions exam. And, he recalls, “I was crushed. I thought I was doomed.” Indeed, most law schools wouldn’t look at him, citing his test scores.
But then Bethia heard about Western State University College of Law, a law school not accredited by the American Bar Assn. but well regarded in California as a “second-chance school” for non-traditional law candidates: generally older students, many of them at mid-career and often lacking the grades or test scores to get them into Establishment law schools with more rigid requirements.
It is also the biggest law school in California and one of the biggest in the nation, with 1,600 students and campuses in Fullerton and San Diego. The school is accredited by the state, and its graduates are eligible to take the California Bar examination and practice law in California. And, in fact, the school has produced scores of judges, prosecutors and other public officials in Southern California.
But in the last few years, Western State has undergone an identity crisis of sorts--centering on the school’s academic mission in relation to such students as Ron Bethia. Only now, under the direction of a new president, has that uncertainty passed.
“We perceive ourselves now--and I think rightly so--as a local school, here to serve students in Southern California,” said John C. Monks, who took over as Western State president last summer after leaving his job as an administrator at Northeastern University law school in Boston.
Rebuffed in attempts to join the ranks of established national law schools accredited by the ABA, Western State has redefined its goals and, in the most dramatic step in that process, abandoned its lengthy and costly quest to gain ABA accreditation.
“I know a lot of people here were reluctant to close the book on” seeking ABA accreditation, said Monks, who took over as Western State president partly with the understanding that the school would end its frustrating ABA hunt.
“But we decided just not to pursue it--we realized it was crazy, just banging our heads up against a wall,” he said.
It has been a divisive time, one that has taken its toll on school morale and has focused on the question of what best indicates success in the legal field. And only now has the debate reached a resolution.
“We’re not a Harvard or a Yale or a Stanford,” Monks said.
The difference now, however, is that Western State has decided to forgo whatever hopes it once held of achieving a lofty national name and, instead, return to its roots of educating students who, as Dean of Admissions Joel H. Goodman said, “might not otherwise have the opportunity.”
Added Associate Prof. Neil T. Gotanda, who holds degrees from Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley and is among a recent influx of faculty with impressive credentials: “The school has picked its path. It’s not going to be an ABA school.
“We’re satisfied serving the students we do and being clearly--without doubt--the best of the non-ABA schools and on par with some of the smaller ABAs.”
The school spent several years and millions of dollars to upgrade its facilities and standards in hopes of gaining accreditation from the American Bar Assn., only to be rejected by the ABA in May, 1987.
The ABA does not disclose publicly its review of accreditation candidates, but Western State officials said the rejection was based largely on a lack of proper facilities--such as library space and volumes--and the need to raise some of its academic standards.
But beyond those concrete concerns is the feeling among many in the Western State community--denied by ABA officials--that the school was hurt in the bid for accreditation by its unique status as a for-profit institution, founded 23 years ago by a handful of investors.
Western State does not release financial information, but a rough tabulation of the school’s student population and tuition--$254 per credit hour (more than what most public schools charge but less than tuition at private schools)--would generate yearly revenue estimated at $9 million.
For years, the ABA refused to consider law schools that were operated for profit, of which Western State is considered the largest. That rule was recently changed, but President Monks said the school’s for-profit status “is obviously not in the mainstream thinking, and that may have posed obstacles” in the eyes of the law school Establishment.
In practical terms, accreditation would have allowed Western State’s graduates to take the Bar exam and practice law anywhere in the country, instead of being limited to California and a few other states. But just as important, the ABA accreditation would have meant a boost in status and respect.
“As a faculty member, I’d have liked the prestige,” admitted Prof. Marcia B. Wilbur, faculty dean. “And the students wouldn’t be denied the flexibility” of practicing law in other states, she added.
And so, though Wilbur and other school officials point to Western State’s unique niche in the law school community, the school’s failure to gain ABA accreditation--and its decision not to pursue that course in the future--comes only with a price.
Rudolph Hasl, dean of the St. Louis University School of Law and chairman of the ABA’s accreditation committee, would not discuss details of his panel’s Western State review but maintained that, in general, accreditation is not merely a sign of prestige. “It reflects a seriousness toward the educational mission,” he said.
In general, Hasl contended, non-ABA schools must face “a presumption of non-competence. . . . (Their students) are just not getting the same kind of preparation.”
Echoing that view was a top administrator at a major California law school, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. He said: “The academic pecking order is one that values high LSAT scores and prestigious faculty and (schools that) send their students to the top law firms making the top salaries. And if you take a look at Western State, there’s no mystery where they stand.”
By numbers alone, Western State seems to fall short of most of the approximately 175 ABA-accredited schools nationwide. With a median LSAT score of 30 (out of a possible 48), Western State students rate on par with a few schools at the bottom of the ABA spectrum, Goodman said. And its first-time Bar passage rate of about 50% also falls significantly below most ABA schools.
But Western State officials maintain that, for their students in particular, traditional academic indicators such as LSAT scores and grade-point averages are not good measures of legal success.
That is because many of the school’s students--with an average age of 33--are seeking out law school after having had experience in other fields. A full 10% of the school’s students have worked in law enforcement, for instance, while about 5% were nurses and 2.5% were doctors, officials said.
U.S. Rep. Duncan L. Hunter (R-Coronado), a 1976 Western State graduate, gives his own case as an example. Returning from Vietnam, Hunter wanted to go to law school but had not finished his college degree. He heard about Western State and was not disappointed.
“It was a great experience studying with older people who had some real-life experience in the world and learning from professors who were practicing judges and lawyers--not some guys who hadn’t set foot in a courtroom in years,” Hunter said. “It was a place of opportunity.”
Western State’s graduates also include state Sen. Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), Assembly Minority Leader Ross Johnson (R-La Habra), Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter and Tustin Mayor Ursula E. Kennedy, as well as several dozen prominent judges, Bar officials and prosecutors in Southern California.
High Employment Rate
School officials concede that Western State’s lack of national accreditation generally precludes its students from gaining high-paying jobs in the biggest and most prestigious law firms. But they point to a 98% employment rate among recent graduates--including an increasing number at large law firms--as one sign that students do well nonetheless.
“We’ll do fine, I know we will,” said 27-year-old Maria Larrea, who said she did poorly on the LSAT but is studying at Western State under a special academic support group that offers extensive counseling and tutorial work to several dozen borderline students each semester. “We’re going to prove all these fancy law schools and big firms wrong.”
Although most at Western State say they would have liked the school to be accredited by the ABA, many contend that accreditation might have changed the school’s atmosphere for the worse--cutting out less qualified students who are now given their only real chance to practice law short of signing up at completely unaccredited and suspect “diploma mills.”
Superior Court Judge Myron S. Brown, an adjunct professor at Western State, said, “Sure, I was disappointed when the ABA didn’t come through, but I think now that we would have lost that very special flavor of the student body.”
Added President Monks: “Others can knock us, but we can take a great deal of pride in teaching people for whom success is not a foregone conclusion--who have to work a little bit harder.”