In a challenging fundraising climate, the first new public law school in California in more than a generation begins classes Monday at UC Irvine with 61 top-flight students, a highly regarded faculty and the goal of becoming a model for an innovative legal education emphasizing hands-on experience and public service.
It has been less than two years since the school's founding dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, was hired, fired and rehired by UCI Chancellor Michael Drake during a weeklong fiasco that focused attention on Chemerinsky's outspoken liberal politics and whether conservative critics had quietly lobbied for his ouster. The resulting national uproar over the sanctity of academic freedom threatened to derail the law school.
Today, the episode seems relegated to the distant past as the school receives high marks even before its doors open. It also fulfills a decades-long dream of Orange County's legal and business leaders -- notably Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren, a major donor -- for a public law school at UCI.
Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor and author of an influential blog on legal education, said that, based on the quality of its faculty and the entrance exam scores of its first class, UCI should be ranked among the nation's top 20 law schools, status that typically takes a new school decades to achieve.
"It's quite unusual. But this is an unusual situation," Leiter said. "This is the University of California, after all, which is a big selling point. They've recruited the right kind of people from the right kind of places. And the fact that someone of Erwin's stature is the dean obviously helps."
So does free tuition.
With a $20-million donation from Bren, UCI was able to provide full scholarships to its entire inaugural class. The offer led to a flood of applicants -- unusual for an untested school in a profession in which pedigree counts. That allowed UCI to be highly selective in admissions, further burnishing its image. At roughly $100,000 per student, the scholarships amounted to a $6-million gamble that paid off, Leiter said.
"What first caught my attention was the free tuition," said Adam Brauner, 23, an Alaska native who applied to UCI after he was already accepted by several law schools, including Columbia, New York University, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago.
Brauner's parents paid his way through Georgetown University, where he earned an economics degree. Law school, however, would be coming out of his pocket. Although he is unsure what kind of legal career he wants, Brauner knows that not having huge student loans to repay will give him a freedom of choice few law school graduates can afford.
Still, the free tuition wasn't the deciding factor, he said. Most important was the unheard-of three-to-one student-faculty ratio that the inaugural class will enjoy and the chance to shape the school's future through such things as the establishment of its first law journal.
"It's a lot of responsibility for the first class. It's intimidating," he said. "But it's comfortable, too, because we know the faculty is going to go for it -- they have their reputations on the line. The incentives are aligned for everyone to give 150% and make this a success."
In all, the school has raised $27 million, including $2 million for an environmental law clinic from a donor who asked to remain anonymous. The goal is for the school to grow to 600 students and be self-supported by tuition. But until that happens, millions more will need to be raised amid the deepest recession in decades.
"The economy is the question mark over the whole enterprise," said Leiter, who said he believes that job cuts at law firms nationwide may lead to some law schools closing. "There's nothing certain here."
That is, nothing except the direction Chemerinsky intends to take UCI's school.
"The traditional model of law schools is to teach students how to think like lawyers. They do a terrific job of teaching how to read cases and form legal arguments," Chemerinsky said. "But they don't do a good job teaching how graduates will use that thinking in an actual legal practice. We want to teach the theory of law as well as the craft."
When he graduated from law school in 1978, Chemerinsky was confident that his diploma would open the door to nearly any opportunity. He was equally certain he hadn't received a good legal education.
That the school was Harvard might surprise some. That the candid constitutional scholar and civil rights attorney would ruffle the ivy on the nation's oldest law school should come as no surprise.
"The law faculty wanted the best students they could get and then have nothing to do with them after they arrived," said Chemerinsky, a professor at USC Law School for 21 years before moving to Duke University in 2004. "Teaching is the most important thing we do."