UC Irvine opens first public law school in California in 4 decades

Erwin Chemerinsky is the founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law.
Erwin Chemerinsky is the founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Today is the first day of classes at UC Irvine’s new law school. It’s been years in the making. KPCC’s Susan Valot says it’s the first public law school in California in more than four decades.

Erwin Chemerinsky (giving tour of UCI School of Law): This is going to be made to look nicer, but it's going to be a small indoor lounge for students to use. There's going to be an outdoor lounge...

Susan Valot: Legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky is giving a tour of the UCI School of Law. The law library is filled with tables, chairs (even rocking chairs) and prints of California impressionist paintings – what Chemerinsky calls a “warm” and welcoming environment. He’s the law school dean, and he wants UCI to have a top 20 ranking. He says part of the emphasis will be on international law.

Chemerinsky: Because of globalization, because of where we’re located, this hasto be a very high priority. So for example, we’re, in the first year, going to require our students to take a course in international legal analysis. Relatively few law schools in the country, and I don’t think any in Southern California, require international legal analysis as part of the first year.

Valot: Chemerinsky also says this is the first time an American law school will do “significant outreach” to the Korean legal community – an important one, given the amount of trade between Korea and the U.S. But is there a need for more lawyers in California? Chemerinsky admits there are plenty.

Chemerinsky: But there is a need for attorneys who graduate better trained in how to practice law. There is a need for more attorneys who will use some or all of their talents to serve the public service.

Valot: Chemerinksy says he hopes his law students will do that.

Chemerinsky: I went to law school because I believe that law is the most powerful tool for social change. Some of our students, I hope when they graduate, will go into government or go into public interest or go into legal services.

But even for those students who go to law firms, my hope is that more from our school than is generally true will use a good deal of time to do pro bono work, to help serve the community.

Valot: Chemerinsky’s developing a relationship with that community. He’s the newest board member at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, where Bob Cohen is in charge.

Bob Cohen: I can’t recall another law school in such an upfront manner saying that “we’re about meeting a public service need” because the public service need – there is no glut of lawyers. And chipping away at that and maybe coming up with some new concepts of how we bridge the gap.

Valot: Cohen says it’ll be great to have students help with the Legal Aid Society’s caseload.

Cohen: In the long run, what’s most important is that we’re putting back into the community lawyers who understand what the problems of poor people are.

Valot: The other high-profile law school in Orange County, the one at Chapman University in Orange, has earned some attention for its legal clinics on elder abuse and family violence. Dean John Eastman says a law school at UCI is a good thing for Chapman.

John Eastman: The number of top students in our applicant pool is growing because of the national focus. So we’re no longer drawing from an exclusively regional market. Both UCI and Chapman are drawing from a much larger national market. And the pie that we’ve created is therefore much bigger than it was before.

Valot: And Eastman, who’s a good friend of UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, says that means bigger pull for both schools.

Eastman: There will be a lot of collaborative efforts in sponsoring conferences. And I suspect that we will become the focus of some national conferences that neither of the schools could have pulled off alone. And I think partly that’s because of Erwin’s and my relationship, partly because of the two schools and our specialties.

Valot: UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky says starting a law school is difficult, thrilling, and exciting, all at the same time. But he's starting from scratch with a vision of creating leaders.

Chemerinsky: Generally law schools do a poor job of preparing people for the practice of law. I want our law school to be different.

Valot: Sixty-three students make up UC Irvine’s inaugural law school class. The school hopes to expand to 200 per class, or about 600 students in all, expanding the campus and expanding Southern California’s legal community.