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Chapman Claws Way to Respect

After Early Struggles, Law School Flourishes

December 15, 2002|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

There's an old joke law school deans like to tell: What does it take to create a law school as well-known and respected as Harvard?

Answer: $300 million. And 300 years.

Parham Williams likes to repeat it because, as dean of Chapman University's School of Law, he believes it embraces the ambitious goals he has set for the 7-year-old institution he's nursed back to health from a troubled beginning: Excellence, built brick by brick over the long haul.

"Starting a law school from ground zero is a huge undertaking," said the 71-year-old educator, whose former students include author John Grisham and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "We learned that you have to have a blueprint to build a house, a road map to find out where you are going."

When the former University of Mississippi dean was hired by Chapman in 1997, its law school was struggling two years after it opened.

The campus in Orange had been denied provisional approval by the American Bar Assn., which criticized the level of the school's students, its academic standards and "lax approach" to grading. Applications were in a tailspin. Perhaps most damaging was a lawsuit brought by students who claimed they were misled into thinking ABA approval for Chapman was imminent; the suit eventually led to $1.25 million in tuition refunds.

"There was a lot of naivete about what it meant to have an ABA-accredited operation," said Joanne Telerico, an associate dean who was brought in by Williams shortly after he arrived to improve, among other things, student recruiting and job-placement efforts.

This fall, Chapman received the ABA's seal of approval, capping a turnaround fueled by a $31-million endowment and aggressive national recruiting of top students and faculty.

Chapman's Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores for 2002 place it in the top third of the nation's 187 accredited law schools, up from the bottom third in 1996. The goal is to reach the top 20% within three years, which would put Chapman's law school in the league with those at American University, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Since Williams came aboard, Chapman's law library has grown by 110,000 volumes. New professors include two who held prestigious posts clerking for U.S. Supreme Court justices. Applications have surged more than fourfold in the last five years, and those for next fall are on track to nearly double. Last summer, 71% of graduates passed the California bar exam on the first try, up from 40% in 1998.

"I think they've turned the corner," said Newport Beach attorney Andrew Guilford, a former California Bar Assn. president who for years has promoted the need for a nationally known law school in Orange County. "A county with 3 million people deserves the opportunity for a first-rate legal education. Chapman has gone a long way to provide that."

Chapman is not the first law school in Orange County. Western State University College of Law opened in Fullerton in 1966. Whittier Law School arrived in Costa Mesa in 1997. Both are ABA accredited.

Chapman hopes to achieve a national reputation by selling itself as a place where a quality legal education can be had with a personal touch that can't be found in the cavernous lecture halls of the big-name lawyer factories.

"I've heard nothing but good things," said former student Denis Bilodeau, who, with a pregnant wife and the law school's future uncertain, quit Chapman in its dark days and took a $22,000 tuition refund. "The faculty is of a much higher quality than it was before. And they have a much better facility now. When I was going there, we were in a strip mall."

Bilodeau, a civil engineer who is on the board of the Orange County Transportation Authority and the Orange County Water District, credits Williams and his high standards for Chapman's comeback.

"He basically came in and said [a percentage] of you are going to fail your classes. He put a heavy grading curve in there," Bilodeau said. "They needed a guy like him. He wasn't the most popular guy at first, but he got the job done."

This year, Telerico and other recruiters took Chapman's story to 131 student events in 30 states, from UC Berkeley to Boston College. Fourteen percent of Chapman's students come from out of state, but the school hopes to raise that to 50% as word of its ABA approval spreads.

"It's a branding thing," Telerico said. "We want people to know what Chapman is. The university has been around for 141 years, but the name of Chapman is not recognized outside the West as well as we'd like it to be. ... We want to defy the standard thinking that you have to be old to be good."

Recruiters tell prospective applicants about Chapman's $32-million law school building, which opened in 1999. They tell them how this year's 372 students enjoy easy access to professors. They trot out the ABA accreditation.

At some point, they bring up the scholarships.

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