Nearly 9 Out of 10 Students at California’s Unaccredited Law Schools Drop Out

Attorney Larry H. Layton operates his own unaccredited law school, the Larry H. Layton School of Law in Acton, Calif. He has not had a student in three years. (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Attorney Larry H. Layton operates his own unaccredited law school, the Larry H. Layton School of Law in Acton, Calif. He has not had a student in three years. (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

To Omar Medina, a security officer working the graveyard shift, attending Northwestern California University School of Law seemed like the ideal way to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer. 

Unlike traditional law schools with high tuitions and entrance requirements, Northwestern California offered Medina a chance to take online courses while working full time and helping raise his toddler son.

Medina enrolled in the unaccredited school. He said he paid about $3,000 a year in tuition.

But almost from the start, the Marine Corps veteran struggled. He said he frequently asked for help, but got little. Less than two years later, he gave up.

Medina’s situation was hardly unusual: Nearly 9 out of 10 students at California’s unaccredited law schools dropped out, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation based on recent state bar data.

Medina’s first-year class in the fall of 2006 had 414 students; 54 remained by the fourth year, data showed.

Of the few who completed classes at the unaccredited law schools, only 1 in 5 ever became a lawyer, according to state records.

These law schools have flourished because California is one of a handful of states in the nation that allow students from unaccredited institutions to take the bar exam. The 22 schools offer four-year programs and are required to register with the state bar, but they are held to few academic standards.

Most of the schools are operated by small companies or individuals. Peoples College of Law, in Westlake, is one of the few nonprofits and counts former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as an alumnus. (He took the bar four times but never passed.)

Faculty typically are working attorneys. They don’t receive tenure and generally aren’t paid much — “gas money” as one law school owner said. They work at the schools out of a desire to teach.

Unlike accredited schools, the unaccredited campuses exist in a regulatory gray area where they are not required to meet the same standards.

“Most jurisdictions simply don’t allow this kind of law school to exist at all. Period,” said Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of University of California, Hastings College of Law, a nationally accredited campus. “California is very, very unusual.”

Over the years, there have been unsuccessful attempts to phase out the unaccredited schools.

Some current bar officials say the high attrition rate shows that these schools are rigorous enough to weed out students who have little chance of success.

The schools “show people very quickly that studying the law, even online, is much harder than getting an associate’s degree from community college,” said George Leal, the bar’s director of educational standards.

State bar officials are considering a proposal to require the schools to meet California accreditation standards within 10 years and create standards for online law schools to obtain accreditation.

Law schools can be accredited either nationally or by the state. National accreditation requirements are more rigorous than California’s. The state’s elite law schools, such as those at UCLA and Stanford University, are accredited nationally by the American Bar Association. Those schools are required to have a 75 percent bar passage rate in three out of five years. The 19 campuses accredited only by the State Bar of California need to maintain a 40 percent bar passage rate over five years.

Unaccredited law schools have no bar passage requirement.

Patti White, a lawyer from San Jose who is chair of the state committee of bar examiners, which oversees both unaccredited and accredited schools, said she and others are concerned about unaccredited schools “not giving the students who pay money to attend them a realistic chance of passing the bar.”

Some experts say action is long overdue.

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Source: Los Angeles Times | Jason Song, Victoria Kim And Sandra Poindexter