Western State University College of Law, whose graduates include a quarter of Orange County's judges and court commissioners, received provisional accreditation this week, ending a dispute that had threatened to damage the school.
"We're sort of on top of the world," said Maryann Jones, Western State's dean.
The American Bar Assn.'s decision marks a reversal of fortune for the Fullerton school, which, at one point, had been at risk of losing its accreditation altogether. Last fall, about half the usual number of students enrolled, Jones said.
The for-profit school received provisional accreditation in 1998, which almost always leads to full accreditation in five years. But two ABA committees recommended that Western State lose its status because of its high dropout rate, the small number of students that pass the bar exam and their low scores on the Law School Aptitude Test.
Western State sued, and in February a federal judge in Santa Ana granted a preliminary injunction that prevented the ABA from revoking accreditation.
The two sides struck a deal in May, with the college agreeing to drop its suit and the ABA agreeing to speed up its process for reconsideration.
ABA approval boosts a law school's prestige and allows its graduates to take the bar exam anywhere in the country. Without the designation, few states outside California would allow Western State's graduates to sit for the test required to practice law. Even in California, students would be required to take extra measures before they could take the test.
The ABA considers students who graduate from a school with provisional status the same as those who attended one with full accreditation.
About 181 law schools in the country have full ABA accreditation, and about six have provisional accreditation.
Well-known schools such as UCLA, Stanford and Yale have ABA approval, as do lesser-known colleges, such as William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota and Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
Only two for-profit schools other than Western State are accredited. An ABA spokeswoman has said that no one at the Chicago-based organization can remember another school with provisional accreditation not being upgraded to full status.
Western State was the first law school in Orange County when it was founded in 1966. It was established mainly for students who worked and attended part time, but in recent years it has attracted more full-timers.
Argosy Education Group of Chicago bought Western State in 2000 and sold it a year later to Education Management Group of Pittsburgh.
Western had charged that the ABA had a history of antipathy toward for-profit schools. The ABA signed a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in 1996 agreeing not to prevent for-profit schools from receiving accreditation.
Around 100 students entered Western State last fall, about half the usual number, said Jones, who attributed the decline to the accreditation dispute.
She said that Western State had agreed to toughen its entrance requirements and that the LSAT scores of its current first-year class already were up.
Jones said that 49% of Western State's students taking the bar exam for the first time last July passed, a higher rate than three other ABA accredited law schools in California.
The provisional accreditation lasts three to five years, when it is either upgraded to full status or dropped entirely.
The ABA House of Delegates, made up of about 450 lawyers, judges and law school professors, approved on a voice vote Monday a recommendation to give Western State provisional status.
"My belief is they have done a good job of educating students, turning out great lawyers and wonderful judges," said Neil Cogan, dean of Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa.