The chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District, the second-in-command at the district attorney's office and one of the state's top prosecutors share a common denominator.
Each received a law degree from the Ventura College of Law, an unpretentious school on Market Street near Telephone Road that is becoming a legal breeding ground for Ventura County, with a growing reputation for turning out good lawyers.
Although the school is not accredited by the American Bar Assn., it has turned out Assistant Dist. Atty. Colleen Toy White; former Ventura City Councilman Dennis Orrock; Timothy Hirschberg, college district president; Community College Chancellor Barbara A. Derryberry, and Merced County Municipal Judge Frank Dougherty.
Community College Trustee James T. (Tom) Ely is also an alumnus, although he has not passed the bar. Graduates include dozens of other attorneys in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
In October, California Lawyer magazine named Ventura College of Law alumnus Jay Orr, an assistant district attorney in Riverside County, one of the eight best prosecutors in the state. Another graduate, Ventura County Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela M. Henke-Dobroth, was also praised in the issue.
"We're not Harvard, Stanford or Yale," acknowledged Benjamin Bycel, dean of the school since 1986. "That prestige factor will never be there."
But he says the school, which operates in conjunction with the Santa Barbara College of Law, is top-notch in what it tries to do: provide a solid, affordable legal education to county residents who, for a variety of reasons, can't attend other schools.
An estimated 100 to 200 of the 970 Ventura County Bar Assn. members are graduates of the Ventura College of Law, college and bar association officials said.
Under Bycel, the school has emerged from a scandal that shook the administration six years ago, when the state attorney general's office filed a lawsuit against the school's former dean, accusing him of mismanaging funds. Eventually, the dean and four members of the board of directors were forced to resign.
The 150-student school, which is staffed by attorneys and judges who teach part time, offers a 3 1/2- or 4-year program and is accredited only by the State Bar of California, not the national bar association.
To be accredited by the American Bar Assn., law schools must have at least six full-time faculty members and an extensive library with books in more than 30 law categories, a bar association spokeswoman said. In addition, most bar association-accredited schools offer day programs, and many are affiliated with major universities.
"There are a lot of law firms in Los Angeles and San Francisco that won't take our graduates," Bycel said.
The school's catalogue warns prospective students that many states outside California allow only graduates of American Bar Assn. law schools to sit for their bar exams. Bycel said he sometimes advises students with good grades, high law school entrance-exam scores and money to attend bar association schools.
Bycel tells students that, if they think the program will be easy, "you're in for the rudest shock of your life."
The school does not require a degree from a four-year college, although most students have undergraduate and many have advanced degrees, Bycel said.
"I'm training my people to go to Main Street instead of Wall Street," Bycel said. "They're going to hit the courtroom running. On their first day out, they're going to know how to write a will, how to interview a client, how to work in a courtroom."
Bycel cited a weekly legal clinic, where professors help students advise people who can't afford lawyers, as an example of the school's practical approach to the law.
Some students said they are not concerned by the school's lack of a blessing from the American Bar Assn.
"I didn't think about going to another university, not really," said Mary Jones, 23, a fourth-year student who attends class during the week and works weekends as a grocery store checker.
Jones, who was admitted to the law school soon after she received a two-year degree from Ventura College, said she wants to practice law only "as far south as Thousand Oaks and as far north as Santa Barbara."
University of Wisconsin graduate Luke Milano said he moved to Ventura to enroll at the school. Milano, 44, said he worked for several years as a paralegal in Milwaukee with the hope of eventually enrolling in a state university law school.
"But I was roadblocked for financial reasons," Milano said. A year's tuition at Ventura College of Law is about $3,400. Tuition at UCLA is $3,069 a year for California residents and $9,985 for non-residents. At Stanford, annual tuition is $14,894.
Fourth-year student Charles Holmes Irwin, 63, is a retired psychologist with an undergraduate degree from Stanford and a master's degree from San Diego State University.
"Law school is something I always wanted to do," Irwin said.
Statewide, 17 law schools are accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar, including the Ventura and Santa Barbara colleges of law, which count as one. There are 16 schools approved by the American Bar Assn., including Stanford, Pepperdine and the University of California law schools. Eighteen law schools are not accredited by either the national bar association or the state.
According to the State Bar of California, 57.1% of Ventura College of Law graduates who took the bar for the first time in July, 1990, passed. Statewide, the average pass rate for first-time takers at schools with state but not national accreditation was 49.9%. (The average pass rate for graduates of American Bar Assn.-approved schools was 81.5%.)
Still, the Ventura College of Law has its detractors.
Some still associate the school with administrative problems that began in 1985, when the state attorney general's office filed a lawsuit against then-Dean Fred J. Olson and four members of the school's board of directors. Olson was accused of taking $50,000 in school funds over his annual $30,000 salary, and using college funds to supplement his antique business.
An assistant state attorney general said at the time that board members, who apparently were unaware of some of Olson's activities, were negligent for not knowing.
Olson and the four board members resigned, and the administration was reorganized. The school later won a civil suit against the former administrators, but the exact amount of the six-figure settlement was not disclosed, Bycel said.
Bycel, 48, a former reporter in New York who also serves as president of the Santa Barbara County Board of Education, is generally credited with turning the college around. He said its state accreditation was never in jeopardy.
Since Bycel's arrival, "the school seems to have been run very well and with a high degree of credibility," said Bartley S. Bleuel, president of the Ventura County Bar Assn. "He's added elements it needed to get over all of those past problems."
Others, however, question the quality of the college's instruction.
"If you can go to a better law school, you should," said Ventura attorney Wendy Cole Lascher, who went to law school at the University of Michigan. "The school provides some practical training for people who can't go elsewhere, but I think there's a fair amount of feeling that it's not as good an education as you can get at an ABA-accredited school."
Lascher said the school has produced "some good lawyers, but also some real disasters." But, she added, "there are also some real disasters from Harvard Law School."
Ventura County Municipal Judge Steven Hintz, who has taught a course in constitutional criminal procedure at the school for six years, said the main difference between Ventura College of Law instructors and other law school professors is that they are not professional educators.
"Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad," said Hintz, a graduate of the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law. "I had both good teachers and bad teachers. My guess is students at the Ventura College of Law find that same split."
Most of the local faculty received law degrees from schools other than Ventura College of Law, including Harvard, Loyola and the University of California law schools.
Riverside County prosecutor Orr said where he earned his law degree has never been an issue.
"I've never had anybody challenge my credentials," said Orr, 35.
Assistant Dist. Atty. White, a 1977 graduate, said Ventura College of Law "serves a tremendous purpose, because a lot of people like me would not have had the chance to go to law school except for a local school like that."
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury said the school's graduates are competitive with law students nationwide. Of about 500 applicants for assistant district attorney last year, a graduate of the college was among the six chosen.
"I think it produces excellent lawyers," Bradbury said.
Said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Henke-Dobroth, a 1981 graduate: "Once you start practicing law, you make your own reputation. I'd match up with any attorney, regardless of where they went to school."