UC Irvine's new law school, set to open next fall, is offering a big incentive to top students worried about the cost of a legal education during the recession: free tuition for three years.
The financial carrot is part of an ambitious strategy by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned constitutional law scholar, to attract Ivy League-caliber students.
The school hopes to offer full scholarships to all 60 members of its inaugural class in 2009 -- but only the best and brightest need apply. Subsequent classes will face normal tuition.
Chemerinsky believes that the prospect of free education, combined with a public interest curriculum and the University of California moniker, will quickly fill his first class and eventually land Irvine among the nation's best law schools.
"Our goal is to be a top-20 law school from the first time we are ranked," he said.
Such a rapid rise to prominence would be unprecedented but not impossible, said Richard Morgan, founding dean of Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"It's like trying to fly the plane while you're still building it," he said, adding that competition for top-notch students is fierce.
There are 200 law schools accredited by the American Bar Assn., including two new schools in North Carolina.
Several others are in the planning stages in New York state, and dozens of unaccredited schools operate across the country.
At last count, 141,719 students were enrolled in ABA-accredited schools.
"During an economic downturn, there is historically an increase in law school applications," Chemerinsky said, explaining that it's an attractive option for undergraduates with poor job prospects.
Chemerinsky has hired 19 professors and administrators, including some who are abandoning jobs at prestigious universities.
The law school hopes to eventually enroll 600 students and to employ 40 to 50 professors.
Rachel Moran, president-elect of the Assn. of American Law Schools, is leaving her longtime post at UC Berkeley's revered Boalt Hall to teach at Irvine. She likens it to a "Star Trek" adventure.
"You're going where nobody's gone before," she said. "I feel that it's going to be a remarkable ride."
A law school has been part of UCI's long-term plan since the university opened in 1965. Its cost was incorporated into the campus growth plan, and Chemerinsky says no additional state funds will be needed to cover estimated first year costs of $25 million.
The school is also the beneficiary of a $20-million start-up grant from Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Co., and a $1-million grant from the Joan Irvine Smith and Athalie R. Clarke Foundation that will pay for the core collection at the law library.
Other Orange County businesses and law firms are pledging sizable donations to bolster an ambitious $100-million fundraising effort during the next 10 years.
Chemerinsky said he has made substantial progress toward raising the $6 million needed to fund full scholarships for his inaugural class. He's promising students a unique program with hands-on experience in legal clinics and eventual job interviews with more than 70 law firms, public interest law organizations and government offices.
Still, in a society seemingly overloaded with lawyers, the question arises: Do we need another law school?
"There isn't a need for another law school like all the rest," Chemerinsky said. "This is our chance to create the ideal law school for the 21st century."