California’s 21st Century Law School
Monday, February 22, 2010
By Nancy Wride
There can’t possibly be many students who faced Yimeng Dou’s to-do list:
- • Apply to the new UC Irvine School of Law while publishing 28 patents as biotech scientist in the private sector.
- • Defend legal immigration when unforeseen administrative errors risk deportation back to China.
- • Accomplish all that while suffering morning sickness and swollen everything. Then give birth – two weeks before classes start – to a 6-pound, 12-ounce baby.
- • Thank the deans for that private room to pump breast milk between Civil Procedure and Contracts.
So it goes during Year One at the spanking new UC Irvine School of Law, the upstart legal institution in Orange County that opened in August with lots of press, lots of promise – and an extensive and tangled back story. To recap:
Internationally-recognized constitutional lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky, his legal gravitas pulling heavyweight faculty from the cream of American law, founds California’s first public law school in 40 years. He is hired. He is un-hired after qualms arise over how his liberal leaning will play in a right-tilting county.
The ensuing national storm over academic independence momentarily threatens the law school’s future. But the fleeting drama leads to cool-headed review and he is rehired. The smoke quickly clears as billionaire Irvine developer Donald Bren and other essential funders in Orange County’s establishment, plaintiffs’ attorneys Mark P. Robinson, Jr., Joe Dunn and Anne Andrews among them, underwrite the vaunted faculty – and every student’s tuition is paid the first year.
In November, Dean Chemerinsky offered a progress report on the school’s website. It concluded: “We could not possibly have a more impressive or nicer group of faculty, staff and students to create what I believe will be a very special law school.”
We asked more than a dozen of the 60 students in the inaugural Class of 2012 to share their experiences. Many of the students brought with them not only Ivy League pedigrees and high grade point averages, but also significant life experiences. Lori Speak had most recently been an assistant pastor at a Baptist church in Fullerton. Chris Dalbey was an architect. Emma Soichet was a speechwriter for Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Ari Yampolsky, 31, is the son of Russian immigrants who arrived in the 1970s. His father is a cabbie. His mom is a cosmetologist. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and went straight to work in organized labor, spending several years at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Service Employees International Union. He worked in research and organizing for what is the country’s largest union, and entered law school a relative late-bloomer.
“I’ve had a lot of responsibility and pressure in my work,” observed Yampolsky, who had been a researcher and organizer for SEIU, which counts health care workers, security guards and janitors among the more than 700,000 workers it represents in California.
“This,” he said of law school, “is much more pressure.”
Still in its infancy, UCI Law is compactly housed in two side-by-side modern buildings that share a courtyard and pedestrian bridge. Graduate student housing is in walking distance. The library is a marvel, lined with early California landscape paintings on loan from the Irvine Museum.
Irvine itself is an Orange County city famous as a planned community – a place with good schools, many greenbelts and few landmarks other than UC Irvine. Just a few blocks off the San Diego Freeway, it is suburban with chain restaurants yet rich with open space. The law school anchors the corner of Campus Drive and East Peltason, near a building housing the university’s Department of Education. It’s a five-mile drive down to the Pacific Ocean, though students laugh at the notion they’d be playing beach volleyball between classes.
“Most of us,” said the architect-turned-student Dalbey, 33, “are spending most of our waking time indoors.” (Although the students did beat the faculty at a basketball tournament chronicled in photos on the students’ Facebook page).
Any of that cut-throat stuff you hear about from the old schools?
Yampolsky, sitting in a study room down the hall from classmates eating chips over a card game, shook his head.
“Anything even approximating that and, from this group, you’d be shunned. It’s a very collaborative atmosphere and that sensibility starts from the top down, with Dean Chemerinsky and [Assistant] Dean [Victoria] Ortiz.”
Yimeng (pronounced Ee-mun) Dou arrived at UCI from China as a Ph.D student, then worked at a biotech firm before finally turning her attention to the law.
“I think the hardest part was not my baby daughter, the pumping every three hours, and not the classes,” she said. “I think it was the immigration threat hanging over me this fall. It is very hard to immigrate legally, and I think I want to help people to avoid going through…what I have gone through. I went into law school to more personally help people and helping immigrants might be my way.”
Among her 60 classmates is a repeatedly expressed wish to use the law as a tool to help people or effect change.
On the eve of their final exams, the students seemed tired but satisfied. Sixty-one started in the fall, with one dropping out for personal reasons. As happy as most of them were, they said they understand their choice of a fledgling law school holds risks. It has no established record, thus no ranking, viewed as important in landing clerkships and jobs. There are no alumni from which to mine opportunities, which Yampolsky said is more critical in law than almost any other profession.
“The risk is this,” said Yampolsky. “It’s a very dog-eat-dog world, the world of law schools. They are looking at LSATs and GPAs and you are graded on a curve. You hear of law students stealing someone’s laptop to sabotage them. Yale Law has a 150-year history, UCLA 40 years. That is a lot of alumni to have help from. Compare that with no alumni.”
UCI students are well aware of the legal bloggerati sniping away.
“That’s what we’d read on the blogs: ‘we’ll see whether they all graduate and get jobs or not,’” Yampolsky said of websites such as abovethelaw.com, one of the most popular legal blogs in the country. After the blog posted a link to student profiles on UCI Law’s website, it brought a million hits in two days, said Rex Bossert, assistant dean for communications and public affairs.
Bossert, formerly editor-in-chief of the National Law Journal, is savvy to the skepticism expressed in the blogsphere about the inaugural class, noting that “there was a lot of talk about whether they were going to be up to snuff.”
He shrugs, as in, we’ll see.
For starters, only 4% of applicants were accepted, the lowest rate of any American law school. Already, UCI has been ranked 15th in the U.S. for intellectual properties law based on the strength of the faculty. Time magazine, noting that UC Irvine “was instantly more selective than Harvard or Yale,” called the new school one of 20 reasons demonstrating “why California is still America’s future.”
Six months before class began, the ABA Journal announced that UC Irvine School of Law tied with the University of Pennsylvania for the final spot in the Top 10 list of American law schools “based on the faculty’s scholarly impact.” Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor and author of an influential blog on legal education, said that the quality of UCI Law’s faculty and the entrance exam scores of its first class give it a spot in the pecking order that typically takes a new school decades to achieve.
Not too shabby.
Students say the school’s esteemed collection of professors, combined with a 3-to-1 ratio of students to faculty (the lowest in the nation), more than offsets the risk of being the first class in a brand new school.
“I figured that the faculty has a strong personal interest in our success, as students, and they would not let us fail,” said Yampolsky, the labor organizer.
Xenia Tashlitsky, 23, said she did not want to speculate on how she fared in her December finals for fear of being embarrassed if her prediction was wrong. And yes, her name is pronounced like the campy TV show warrior princess, but the name in Greek means “hospitality.”
An immigrant whose family moved to San Diego from the Ukraine when she was 5, Tashlitsky earned her undergraduate degree at UC Irvine in political science. She went on to work at wildly different jobs, first as a webmaster for a jewelry company, then as a graphic artist for a bedding design company.
But she knew she’d found work that grabbed her when she answered a Craigslist ad for a paralegal job with a San Diego real estate lawyer representing plaintiffs in consumer cases.
One of many things she loves about UC Irvine’s program is the clinical practice it affords, Tashlitsky said. “Many schools offer that opportunity, but [UCI] requires it.”
The school’s generous scholarships cannot be underestimated as a draw to numerous students. They get a full ride for three years on tuition, and guaranteed discounts on housing. Half of the funding needed to cover all three years for the Class of 2013 had been raised by Dec. 31.
Such financial largess helped draw the school’s richly diverse student body. Several students agreed the unexpected pleasure of this inaugural class is how extremely different the students are from each other.
“My classmates have had these amazing experiences,” said Tashlitsky. “One worked for a politician and does large scale art installations. There is a French person who was a reporter for a Vietnamese newspaper.” Two classmates are from Alaska, which she concedes with a laugh is “an amazingly high percentage of people from Alaska for a class of 60!”
Students say the school’s lack of institutional history and absence of well-placed alumni has been more than offset by UCI Law’s respected faculty – and better opportunities to get to know them.
Several students cited professor Christopher Leslie’s humor and what Dou called his “Socratic” questioning style. “I never thought I’d like Contracts,” mused Yampolsky. Others praised media law professor Henry Weinstein’s numerous guest speakers, such as Bruce Lisker, who spent 26 years in prison before a judge vacated his murder conviction.
An especially empathetic faculty member mentioned by students is professor Catherine Fisk. During her Legal Profession class right before finals, students looked visibly relieved when Fisk urged them to not overstress final exam grades, saying she had performed terribly in her first semester of law school and still managed to get a fancy clerkship. She also had them laughing when she suggested it was time to hear comments back before she put them “in a coma.”
A UC education, free tuition, discounted housing, graduating debt-free. What’s not to like?
“We’re going to be the babies of the entire UCI system,” said Jeffrey Wachs, a screenwriter and former staffer at the William Morris Agency who has married and had a daughter since applying to Irvine. He has been active in a committee starting the school’s founding law review, one of many appeals to being part of the first class.
“There is a logic to being here,” Wachs added. “The UC system is finally opening a new law school after years of organization. It didn’t seem like they’d let their first class fall on their faces. Unlike other law schools, you are not on your own here.”
Nancy Wride is a freelance journalist based in Southern California.