Students rally to protest decision to close Whittier Law School

Holding signs reading “Justice 4 Whittier Law School,” “We want answers” and “Where is the money?” dozens of Whittier Law School students rallied at Whittier College on Friday to protest college administrators’ decision to close the law school.

“Our goal was to make sure our voices were heard and let the board of trustees know we’re not going to give up,” first-year Whittier Law student Jamila Ha said. “We’re going to keep fighting because we believe in our school and we believe in our students.”

Whittier Law, which was founded in 1966 and moved to Costa Mesa in 1997, is part of Whittier College in Whittier. Last week, the college board voted to stop accepting new students at the law school this fall. The plan is to cease operations once all current students have graduated.

Whittier College spokeswoman Ana Lilia Barraza said the college greeted the protesting students Friday and respects “their right to hold a peaceful demonstration.”

“Our goal is to have more information for them soon as to next steps in this process,” Barraza wrote in an email.

Many Whittier Law students first heard about the board’s decision during an on-campus meeting Wednesday but came away frustrated at the lack of specifics, said Kristina Edrington, a third-year student and president of the school’s Student Bar Assn.

“The fact that they made the decision without a plan in place for the students that are going to remain is so unacceptable and so outrageous,” she said Friday.

Whittier College President Sharon Herzberger said the top priority will be to help students complete their degrees. A plan addressing that will be developed in the next two months or so, according to college officials.

“We realize how difficult this decision is and the impact it will have on people, some of whom have worked there for a long time,” Herzberger said in an interview this week. “Frankly, we know how difficult it is for students who chose this as their law school.”

Earlier this week, some Whittier Law faculty members unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order in an effort to delay the board’s decision.

“The announcement happened in a very sudden, shocking and irresponsible way from the perspective of a lot of stakeholders,” said Hanna Chandoo, a Whittier Law alumna and an attorney with Stris & Maher LLP.

Chandoo, one of the attorneys who filed for the restraining order, said she and others are still exploring potential legal options.

“Interested and affected constituencies are looking to use the legal process and the legal system as a way to hold the college accountable for a decision that is entirely self-serving and, from the perspective of students and faculty, shameless in the way it was delivered,” she said.

Whittier College officials declined to comment about the legal matters.

College officials have said the decision to close the school arose from concerns with how many students were graduating, passing the bar exam and finding employment in the legal profession.

In July 2015, 38% of Whittier Law graduates who took the California bar exam for the first time passed it, compared with a 59.7% rate for first-timers statewide.

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

In late January, Whittier College finalized an agreement to sell the law school’s 14-acre campus at 3333 Harbor Blvd. for $35 million.

Whittier College has a lease for the land until June 2018 with the option of extending for two more years, according to Barraza.

She declined to identify who bought the land, and the Daily Pilot was unable to verify its new ownership.

Costa Mesa city spokesman Tony Dodero said Friday that the city hasn’t yet been contacted about possible plans for the property.

In court documents, law school faculty members alleged that Whittier College netted nearly $13 million from the sale and pledged the money would be reinvested in the school.

Barraza said the decision to sell the property was not related to the decision to close the school.

We had all tried to be less emotional about it, but every single one of my professors cried.

— Jamila Ha, a first-year Whittier Law student

Since the news broke of the planned closure, students at the school have struggled to cope, especially with finals around the corner, Edrington and Ha said.

“We had all tried to be less emotional about it, but every single one of my professors cried,” Ha said. “I spent a lot of the day crying about it because it’s a terrible situation. The students are scared. The students don’t know what to do.”

Edrington said students are disheartened.

“We have a beautiful facility, fantastic faculty, fantastic administrators, staff and students, and yet, when you walk through the doors you just don’t know what the future holds for anyone that’s standing there,” she said. “And that weighs really heavily on students.”

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