Crippling debt, no jobs, a glut of attorneys, and inadequate practical training are among the allegations. Alarming stories have recently appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist.
No wonder that law school applications are at their lowest level in years and that there is a growing national debate about revising legal education to reduce costs and to increase practical and clinical training.
Let’s take a closer look.
Community law schools, such as Monterey College of Law (MCL), are actually part of the solution, not the problem. Because MCL is a part-time evening program held Mondays through Thursdays — students have the opportunity to gain practical, law-related work experience before they graduate. Many are earning enough to significantly reduce or even eliminate the need for student loans. Equally as important, their jobs frequently become permanent after they graduate and pass the bar.
What about rising law school costs and crippling debt?
Tuition and fees at public law schools in the UC System have risen to more than $150,000 for a traditional three year J.D. program. Critics point out that without taking on huge student loans, a law degree is simply out of financial reach for many aspiring attorneys. At $68,000 for tuition and fees for the completed J.D. degree, MCL’s costs are less than one-half of this amount and yet qualify graduates to take the same bar exam to be licensed in California.
But what about the claim that there are too many attorneys?
That may be true in large cities and severely economically depressed regions of the country. But along the central coast and throughout the Salinas Valley, there is a real need for qualified attorneys in virtually all practice specialties, particularly those with language skills who are interested in helping underrepresented communities. Graduates of law schools like MCL provide the foundation of community legal services. MCL graduates include six Superior Court judicial officers in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, a presiding Municipal Court judge in Spokane, Wash., and senior attorneys in the district attorney and public defender’s offices. Graduates also serve as the executive directors of Legal Services for Seniors in Monterey and Santa Cruz, and the Monterey County Bar Association.
MCL, now celebrating its fourth decade of operations, focuses on preparing law students to be successful practicing attorneys. An often-heard complaint about typical law school programs is the overemphasis on theory at the expense of practical skills training. MCL students will typically graduate with more than 200 hours of practical skills training and 150 to 180 hours of pro bono, law-related community service. Our students also learn directly from faculty members who are experienced practicing lawyers and judges.
How are we doing during these challenging times for legal education?
Monterey College of Law is one of 17 California law schools accredited by the State Bar of California, not the American Bar Association. As an assurance of academic integrity, the State Bar requires that law schools maintain a minimum cumulative bar pass rate on the California Bar Exam of at least 40%. MCL’s cumulative pass rate of 66% through the July 2012 bar exam ranks it among the top California State Bar accredited law schools. To better serve a broader community, we also expanded in 2010 to include a first-year program in Santa Cruz in addition to the main campus in Seaside for both the J.D. and the two-year Master of Legal Studies degree programs.
Quite apart from the doom and gloom describing other law schools, community law schools such as MCL are successfully providing legal education that directly meets student needs: reasonable cost, high quality, practical training, and local employment.