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Ex-Chapman Students Sue Law School

July 01, 2001|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They dropped out of law school halfway through, but that was apparently all the education they needed to grasp the fundamental lessons of lawyering.

In a case that gives new meaning to the term "class action," more than a dozen former law students of Chapman University are suing the institution, claiming that it conned them into enrolling in a then-second-rate law school struggling for recognition.

The students, who say they dropped out because they feared the experience would ruin their nascent law careers, are demanding reimbursement for tuition, as well as payment of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they say they might have banked had they graduated on time and become bona fide legal eagles.

The case, which is being heard in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, focuses on the law school's troubled first years, as well as its initial failed attempts to win accreditation by the American Bar Assn. The suit claims that officials sought to conceal the trouble they were having getting accreditation to prevent students--and their dollars--from fleeing the campus.

"The school wasn't friendly in its dealings with students, and it wasn't ethical," said Steven Madison, one of several lawyers representing the students. "In our state, it's against the law to lie to people to get their money."

Law school officials strongly deny these claims and insist they dealt honestly with all students. They say that despite a rocky start, the school successfully graduated its inaugural class on schedule. It also took the unprecedented step of repaying more than $1 million in tuition fees to students who had grown nervous about the school and wanted to quit.

But even as school officials deny the claims, they take pains to say that Chapman Law School is a different place today than it was when it opened in 1995 with new administrators and faculty.

Consequently, they say, the lawsuit has dampened many spirits there.

"We believe the court will find no merit in this case," said Ruth Wardwell, a university spokeswoman. "It's disappointing and disheartening, though. Lawsuits are always a blemish. It's particularly difficult to read about it when you're trying to recruit students."

Among other charges, the students claim the school lied when it promised it would win accreditation easily. The college said in its catalogs that it offered some of the nation's finest legal scholars and claimed that many of its faculty were recently named professor of the year.

The suit claims that, in reality, experience and honors were thin among the faculty, and even the school's first dean had no previous experience in such a post.

Even more troubling, according to former students, was the school's initial failure to gain ABA accreditation.

Without such accreditation, law students are required to take a battery of tests after their first year. If students fail to pass this "baby bar" exam, their school credits do not count toward graduation. Second, students who do not attend an ABA-accredited school must attend law school for four years instead of three. And third, students who graduate from an unaccredited school cannot take the bar exam in any state outside California, which limits their prospects for work.

Among the hurdles to accreditation were the school's lack of a permanent building, concerns about lax grading and the quality of the faculty.

With many students fearing the school would not get accreditation on time, Madison said, they "had to decide whether to cut their losses, leave the school, take a leave of absence, or roll the dice and stay at Chapman Law School."

It was at this time that the school decided to refund the school's annual $17,000 tuition if students wanted to leave. By taking the reimbursement, students barred themselves from taking legal action.

In all, almost four dozen students refused the reimbursement and have filed suit against the school.

Today, Chapman University's law school holds provisional accreditation by the ABA, and more than 200 students are enrolled.

That's a far cry from the state of affairs in 1995, when anxious administrators waited for students to gather for their first orientation.

"Orientation was scheduled for 9 a.m. and by 9:15 nobody had shown up," Jeremy Miller, former law school dean, said in court recently. "I broke into a cold sweat. I said, 'We're not going to have any students.' It was my worst fear. By 10:30 though, we had a full house."

Plaintiffs in the case repeatedly declined to speak to a reporter, saying they were instructed not to by their attorneys. Some have gone onto become lawyers, others picked other professions.

Some classmates who remained at the school and eventually graduated with law degrees said they have little sympathy for them.

"I think everyone knew what we were getting into," said Michael Bailey, who transferred into Chapman Law School during its second year of operation and now practices family law in Orange.

"I think we really have to take responsibility for it individually. I think this lawsuit is really sour grapes. They got into law school and found out it was hard."

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