Does California – or the country for that matter – need a new law school? Officials at the University of California at Irvine believe it does and are moving ahead with plans to create another law school even though the state agency charged with studying such issues is unconvinced of the need.
The University of California Board of Regents has signed off on the law school which will cost $70 million to build and is expected to open in 2009.
Irvine’s law school proposal was sent to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, an advisory group to the Legislature and the governor on higher education, in September. After learning that the commission would recommend against the law school, the university withdrew the proposal to provide more information. After reviewing the revisions, the commission “still is unable to make a recommendation,” said Murray Haberman, executive director. While Irvine is moving ahead, the commission's reaction has renewed criticism of the project.
Dan Walters, a columnist writing for The Sacramento Bee, wrote in an op-ed called "law school plan smells like pork” that studies have demonstrated that California has about “a 90 percent oversupply of lawyers already.”
“California doesn’t need another law school that would be built at least partially with voter-approved bond funds and whose operations would be at least partially underwritten by taxpayers,” he said.
One area in which Irvine failed to meet commission criteria for new programs was proof of demand. The American Bar Association accredits 19 law schools in California.
But the commission's objections may not carry the day. “We don’t have final approval authority,” said Haberman. “However, it would be the first time if they moved forward with a new program without receiving the commission’s recommendation for concurrence.”
Velma Montoya, a former University of California regent, wrote in a column on the debate: “If there were a current California lawyer shortage, why aren’t California’s market-driven independent law schools expanding.” She added that if a fifth California public law school is created, it would need hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to build and operate for even a short period of time.
Irvine officials maintain that their law school will be different because of a focus on training public interest lawyers. The law school aims to train students, its material say, "to think more deeply and critically about a number of complex social issues regarding equal opportunity, racial and national identity, minority rights, civil and individual rights and social justice.”