UC Irvine School of Law's first graduating class is already competing with elite law schools, judging by one state standard.
In the 2012 class, 46 of 51 students — 90% — passed the California bar exam on their first try in July, the university announced. That percentage is significantly higher than average.
"I was thrilled, but of course, that's been our goal from the very beginning," said founding UCI Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. He went into the program intent on building a top-20 law school.
According to California State Bar Assn. numbers, 77% of first-time test takers passed the most recent three-day exam, which is given twice a year, in February and in July. Overall, only 55% of all test-takers passed.
The state bar hasn't yet released percentages for individual schools' pass-fail rates, but according to 2011 numbers, UCI has already joined an exclusive club.
USC's law school was the only state bar-accredited institution to break 90% in July 2011.
Other top schools fell shy of that mark, with Stanford at 89%; UC Berkeley, 87%; Pepperdine, 86%; and UCLA, 85%. Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa had a 56% pass rate.
Indeed, according to UCI, faculty members were recruited from prestigious institutions and were highly ranked in terms of their scholarly impact. The school also followed admissions standards comparable to top-20 schools — approving only 4% of applicants.
Mohammed Elayan, 31, is one of the students who passed. He said UCI was the only law school to which he applied because others were prohibitively expensive.
When he found UCI was offering full scholarships to those admitted to its inaugural class, he jumped at the chance.
"Some people felt like it was kind of crazy to put everything on this no-name law school, but I never felt that way," he said.
He credited Chemerinsky with much of the success, saying UCI struck a balance between academic pursuit and real-world preparation.
"You bet on the jockey, not the horse," Elayan said.
Chemerinsky, though, returned the admiration.
"The simple reality is it's the students who deserve all the credit," he said.