California's State-Accredited and Unaccredited Law Schools and the Baby Bar
The State Bar of California recognizes three different categories of law schools: ABA-accredited schools, state-accredited schools, and unaccredited schools. In most states, a degree from an ABA-accredited law school is a prerequisite for eligibility to take the bar examination, but California has its own system for accrediting law schools and allows graduates of these state-accredited schools (also called Committee-accredited schools, since the body accrediting them is the Committee of Bar Examiners) to sit the bar upon completion of their degrees alongside graduates of ABA-accredited schools. The Committee also allows graduates of unaccredited law schools to sit the bar, but students at these schools are required to take the First-Year Law Students' Examination, also called the Baby Bar, in order to proceed past their 1L years.
State-Accredited Law Schools
As of this writing (April 2010), there are 18 state-accredited law schools in California. The admissions procedures at most state-accredited schools are laxer even those that of the most lowly ranked ABA-accredited schools. State-accredited schools may accept students who do not have college degrees; the minimum educational requirement for admission as a regular student to a state-accredited law school is college credit equivalent to half of a bachelor's degree – generally 60 credits, or two years of full-time degree work. As long as the student received passing grades in 60 credits of courses, earning a degree is not necessary. Furthermore, if a prospective student is for some reason unable to meet this requirement, s/he may apply as a “special” student and be admitted without the 60-credit educational background. Usually, applicants who seek special student status must take several College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests. CLEP is a system of college equivalency tests offered by the College Board, the same organization that makes the SAT. However, special student status is not commonly granted. The college credit and CLEP requirements are both derived from the state's educational requirements for candidates for bar admission – the schools require what the bar requires.
Although many state-accredited schools require the LSAT for admission, some do not. The Southern California Institute of Law, for example, states that the LSAT is only required for applicants who do not have bachelor's degrees. It goes on to say that the LSAT score is not for admissions purposes but merely for statistical purposes. It does not specify what these statistical purposes are, but it recommends that applicants aim for at least the 50th percentile.
Academics and Tuition
State-accredited schools almost exclusively offer four-year, part-time programs. Classes are generally held at night, and most state-accredited schools market their programs specifically to working adults. (The University of West Los Angeles offers a three-year, full-time program, but it requires enrollment in summer sessions and is a small division of the school.) The curriculum at a state-accredited school is usually similar to that of most ABA-accredited schools, including all the standard courses: Torts, Contracts, Property, Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Legal Writing, Constitutional Law, Evidence, and so on. One difference between state-accredited schools and typical ABA-accredited schools is that, at most state-accredited schools, the curriculum is almost entirely inflexible, with room for only a few electives.
Tuition at a state-accredited school is typically very low, and since the programs are part-time, tuition is generally given at per-credit rates, rather than per year or per semester. Cal Northern School of Law, for example, charges $360 per credit. Since the J.D. requires 83 credits, the total cost of the degree would be around $30,000. This is a fairly typical rate, although a few schools, such as the Glendale University College of Law, cost closer to $50,000 for the four-year degree. State-accredited schools do not tend to give estimates of cost of living, since it is assumed that most of their students will already have established homes and jobs. Another consequence of this older student body is that geography is more important than differences among academic programs. Very few state-accredited schools advertise specialized centers or programs, but many do mention their locations as an important feature: Cal Northern, for example, bills itself prominently on its home page as “the only law school between Sacramento and the Oregon border.”
Most state-accredited schools do not put a lot of resources into advertising the career opportunities open to their graduates. Those that do provide career information tend to do so in the form of individual examples and testimonials, rather than statistics. The Empire College School of Law, for instance, gives a list of notable alumni and their positions in law firms, solo practice, business, district attorney's offices, and the judiciary. However, the school gives no indication of when these graduates earned their J.D. degrees or what percentage of the school's alumni they represent. The Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law, meanwhile, profile several graduates in their viewbook . Again, however, no statistics are given, and in a few of these profiles it is unclear what the graduate does or whether s/he is actually practicing law at all. Despite this very nebulous picture of employment prospects, prospective students can at least rest assured that students who earn a J.D. at a state-accredited school are eligible to sit the California bar exam and practice law in California.
Practicing law outside of California, on the other hand, may not be so simple. As each state-accredited school's website warns, a degree from one of California's state-accredited schools does not qualify someone to sit the bar examination in most other states. Prospective students wishing to eventually practice law outside California should take care to familiarize themselves with the rules on admission to the bar in the state(s) in which they are interested in practicing. Most states have reciprocity agreements with other states: lawyers who have been practicing for a certain number of years in one state may be admitted “by motion” to the bar of a second state, which means they do not have to sit the second state's bar examination. They do, however, have to fulfill the other requirements of bar admission, which in most states include holding a J.D. from an ABA-accredited law school. Two of California's neighbors, for instance, Arizona and Oregon, specify that out-of-state lawyers wishing to be admitted by motion must have a J.D. from an ABA-accredited institution. (California's third neighbor, Nevada, has no reciprocity agreement with any state; all candidates must sit the bar exam.)
A few states, including Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, do allow graduates of institutions accredited by other states to apply for admission by motion, but the applicant must have actively practiced law for a certain number of years (three of the last five years for Wisconsin; five of the last seven years for Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) in the state by which the degree-granting institution is accredited.
Some states refuse admission by motion to graduates of state-accredited law schools but allow those graduates to sit those states' bar examinations under certain circumstances. Oregon, for example, allows people who have been practicing law in another state for three of the past five years, regardless of educational background, to sit the bar examination.
It should be noted that none of these states allows graduates of another state's state-accredited law schools to sit their bar examinations immediately upon graduation. Wisconsin, a state known for its relaxed bar admissions procedures (graduates of either of Wisconsin's two law schools are automatically admitted to the bar), does allow graduates of state-accredited law schools to sit the Wisconsin bar examination rather than waiting three years to become eligible for admission by motion, but it requires that they must first have passed the bar and been admitted to practice in the state where the institution is located. So, a graduate would have to pass the California bar in order to be eligible to sit the Wisconsin bar.
To summarize, graduates of state-accredited law schools are able to gain admission to the bar in a few other states, either by taking the bar exam, practicing law in California for a certain number of years, or both. In many other states, however, a state-accredited degree will never qualify someone to practice law, so having a degree from a state-accredited law school can limit one's geographical freedom. Prospective students should think seriously about where their lives may take them in the future and should be aware of the geographical doors they are closing by choosing a state-accredited law school rather than an ABA-accredited school. The choice is safest for those who have strong ties to California and a realistic expectation of staying there for the remainder of their lives – or at least for the years it will take to make them eligible for admission to the bar in the few states that permit state-accredited law school graduates to practice law at all.
Finally, prospective students should be aware of the bar passage statistics for the schools they are considering. During the July 2009 administration, only 21.1% of takers from state-accredited schools passed the bar, compared with 70.4% for ABA-accredited California schools. 21.1% is the overall rate, representing a 32.2% pass rate for first-time takers and a 12.6% pass rate for retakers. One might surmise that this low pass rate is the result of state-accredited schools disobeying the Committee of Bar Examiners, which requires that schools do not accept students who have no hope of passing the bar, or that the students are capable of passing the bar but fail due to their own lack of motivation, or perhaps that state-accredited schools accept capable and motivated students but do an abysmal job of preparing them to take the bar exam. Whichever explanation they find most plausible, prospective students must ask themselves if they are realistically capable of passing the California bar, whether they are willing to take their preparation into their own hands should their schools fail them, and what the consequences would be if they failed to pass the bar on the first try or if they never passed the bar.
Unaccredited Law Schools
Just like ABA-accredited schools and Committee-accredited schools, completely unaccredited schools may confer J.D. degrees upon their students and render their students eligible to sit the California bar. It is important not to confuse these schools' lack of accreditation with a total absence of regulation. In order to grant degrees, these schools must be “registered” with the Committee of Bar Examiners. To become and remain registered, a school must demonstrate that it employs qualified faculty who have adequate time to devote to teaching, that it maintains a library and other facilities according to standards set forth by the Committee, that it does not admit applicants who appear unable to complete the program, and that is had adequate financial resources. If the Committee feels that a school is not in compliance with Committee standards, it issues a notice of noncompliance, which begins a process that can lead to revocation of the school's registration, thereby taking away the school's power to grant degrees.
An unaccredited school is also required to provide a disclosure statement to all of its students every time they pay tuition or enrollment fees. The disclosure form must contain a statement that the school is not accredited, a reminder that degrees granted by the school may not qualify a student to be admitted to the bar in states other than California, a statement of the faculty-student ratio, and a description of each faculty member's qualifications. The form must further reveal whether the school has applied for accreditation in the past five years and what the outcome of that application was. Fixed-facility schools must list the number of books in their libraries, and schools ten years or younger must include a statement of assets and liabilities. If a school has received a notice of noncompliance from the committee, it must disclose that. Finally, it must provide bar passage statistics and First Year Law Students' Examination (FYLSX) statistics for the past five years.
Types of Unaccredited Law Schools
Within the world of unaccredited law schools, the State Bar of California makes distinctions among correspondence schools, distance-learning schools, and fixed-facility schools. A fixed-facility school is one with a traditional campus where students physically attend class on campus. This category accounts for the majority of unaccredited schools. Classification as a correspondence school means that instruction is conducted by exchange of written, audio, and visual materials, whereas a distance-learning school uses technological means to create interactive classrooms – in other words, they must use the internet. As online learning technology becomes more advanced, this distinction is increasingly antiquated. Most of the schools currently classified as correspondence schools use online resources as a major part of their J.D. programs. The only correspondence schools that advertise no online component are the Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy and the University of Honolulu School of Law. As of this writing, there are seven correspondence schools, five distance-learning schools, and 16 fixed-facility unaccredited schools in California.
Correspondence schools tend to offer very simple admissions procedures and low standards for acceptance. Because the California Committee of Bar Examiners requires that (barring special student status) students must have completed 60 credits of college work in addition to a J.D. in order to sit the bar examination, correspondence schools, like state-accredited schools, require 60 college credits for admission. However, most of these schools give the impression that this requirement is intended to ensure that the school's graduates will be eligible to sit the bar, rather than to provide a metric of academic ability. The standard talk of using undergraduate performance to evaluate a candidate's suitability for law study is almost entirely absent from the world of correspondence law school admissions, and Taft Law School even states openly that, because most of its students are years removed from college, “prior class rank and grade point average are not significant factors in the admission process.” Furthermore, whereas many state-accredited schools do require an LSAT score for admission, California's correspondence law schools make no reference whatsoever to the LSAT, with one exception: California Southern University advertises on its homepage, “No LSAC, SAT, GMAT tests.” Some correspondence schools ask for a personal statement explaining the applicant's reasons for applying to law school, while others require only transcripts. One school, the MD Kirk School of Law, requires an in-person interview.
Like correspondence schools, distance-learning schools require 60 credits of undergraduate work, sometimes require a personal statement, but do not generally require the LSAT. Of the five distance-learning schools currently registered in California, the only one to require the LSAT is the Aristotle University Institute of Law and Jurisprudence, which requires that applicants either take the LSAT or intend to take it within one year of enrolling. Two schools have their own admissions tests: the Concord Law School of Kaplan University requires that applicants take the Concord Online Admissions Test, and the Abraham Lincoln School of Law requires its own “Admissions Assessment TEST” (“TEST” is consistently capitalized, but if it is an acronym, it is never revealed what the letters stand for).
Unaccredited fixed-facility schools are similar to correspondence and distance-learning schools in their admissions processes: some require the LSAT while others do not, but all require at least 60 college credits. Of those schools that require the LSAT, some follow the model of the aforementioned Aristotle University – students are required to take the LSAT, but they may do this up to a year after enrollment. Most fixed-facility schools do require a personal statement.
Academics and Tuition
Unaccredited fixed-facility schools, like state-accredited schools, often offer students the opportunity to take just one or two electives. At many correspondence and distance-learning schools, however, the entire curriculum is set, with no electives offered at all. The International Pacific Law School and MD Kirk School of Law are two such schools. Although the lack of electives at correspondence and distance-leaning schools may be a negative for some students, they also offer some advantages over fixed-facility schools, including more flexible academic schedules; correspondence and distance-learning schools generally allow students to enter at several different points throughout the year, and students may study, for the most part, whenever they please.
An obvious hurdle facing students at both correspondence and distance-learning schools is the lack of a law library. Some schools address this issue more effectively than others. The MD Kirk School of Law (a correspondence school), for instance, provides its students with LexisNexis accounts, as well as letters of introduction for students who would like to seek permission to use the libraries of local, fixed-facility schools. The American Heritage University of Southern California, on the other hand, has this to say on the topic: “Since the law program is online, students are encouraged to pursue their local County Libraries or Law Libraries to fulfill their research needs. Students are also advised that they can subscribe to West Law Access or Lexus- Nexus.”
Correspondence schools tend to offer the lowest tuition of any category – which, considering the method of instruction, they perhaps ought to. The University of Honolulu School of Law, for example, charges a mere $3,000 per year for its four-year degree, while the MD Kirk School of Law charges $3,500 per year. The most expensive correspondence law school is the International Pacific Law School, which charges a comparatively expensive $8,700 per year, in addition to demanding a whopping $250 application fee.
Distance-learning law schools tend to be slightly more expensive than most correspondence schools; tuition ranges around $7,000-$8,000 per year, or $30,000 for the entire J.D.
Tuition costs at fixed-facility schools vary but are usually in the same range as tuition at correspondence and distance-learning schools. The Lorenzo Patiño Law School, for example, charges just under $5,000 per year, meaning the entire degree would cost about $20,000, while the University of Silicon Valley School of Law estimates that the degree will cost $33,700. The People's College of Law is one of the cheapest, charging only $4,000 a year. Most unaccredited schools do not offer financial aid, although several offer financing plans. Students at unaccredited schools are not eligible for Stafford loans, but private educational loans may be an option.
Generally, the rules that govern state-accredited law school graduates' eligibility to practice law in other states also apply to graduates of unaccredited schools. However, if state-accredited schools are half-hearted in their advertisements of career opportunities, unaccredited schools are positively remiss. Most schools make no reference to a career services office, and many do not devote even a single page to discussing employment opportunities.
Others take the same approach as many state-accredited schools, listing the current workplaces of individual alumni. California Southern Law School uses this method to display the professional achievements of its graduates. Unfortunately, however, the school gives no indication of what percentage of alumni is represented in the list, nor does it list graduation dates. Many graduates work in the District Attorney's office or the Public Defender's office in either San Bernadino or Riverside (two cities just East of Los Angeles). Of those in private practice, many have their surnames featured in the names of their firms, indicating that graduates tend to go into solo practice or form small practices with other lawyers (or perhaps inherit family-run firms).
Western Sierra Law School is one of very few unaccredited law schools with a webpage devoted to career prospects. However, this consists of one page that simply lists four links to job search sites, the first of which is Craigslist.
Additionally, there is little evidence that unaccredited schools actually offer sufficient preparation for their students to pass the bar. Of the 404 graduates of unaccredited schools who sat the July 2009 test, only 64 passed – a 15.8% pass rate. This represents a 21.4% pass rate for distance-learning schools (40 out of 187), a 10.9% pass rate for correspondence schools (7 out of 64), and an 11% pass rate for fixed-facility schools (17 out of 153). This 11% pass rate for fixed-facility schools was actually a significant increase from the February 2009 administration. For the February 2009 bar examination, 20.0% of unaccredited correspondence school graduates passed the bar (16 out of 80), and 18.9% of distance-learning graduates passed (35 out of 185). However, of the 138 fixed-facility graduates who sat the test, only 4 passed – a 2.9% pass rate.
In the case of unaccredited law schools, prospective students should also remember that the only students who sit the general bar are those who have passed the Baby Bar. Baby Bar pass rates, discussed in further detail below, are generally very low. So, if a hypothetical school consistently has a 20% bar examination pass rate, this does not mean that 20% of its current first-year students will eventually pass the bar; it means that 20% of the students who pass the Baby Bar will pass the general bar. So, if 40% of students eventually pass the Baby Bar (this figure assumes that some students pass on their second and third tries, as per-administration pass rates are generally much lower than 40%), the proportion of first-year students who can expect to pass the general bar is not 20%, but 8%.
In addition to poor bar passage rates, state-accredited and unaccredited schools suffer from a decided lack of resources in comparison to their ABA-accredited counterparts. They offer a very small range of electives (if any) and tend to have small faculties that are made up of practicing lawyers rather than full-time professors. Although having faculty members who are practicing attorneys is often couched as an advantage, it also means that the faculty members are taking on teaching in addition to other, full-time responsibilities and, though they have practical experience, may not be in touch with the world of legal academia. The general lack of student-focused resources at unaccredited schools is most evident in their websites, which are universally unappealing and hard to navigate, and occasionally downright unprofessional. This is best illustrated by the People's College of Law, which has unwisely taken its page on the history of the school directly from the user-edited Wikipedia. At the time of this writing, the school's own website includes this snippet on the bar passage rate:
“People's College of Law has recently announced that statistics published by the State Bar indicate that 50% of graduates taking the July 2007 Bar Exam for the first time passed. However, it is based on one student actually passing the bar of the two that attempted the examination for the first time. The four students who repeated the examination at the same time all failed the bar examination.”
The Baby Bar
The First Year Law Students' Examination (FYLSX), more commonly known as the Baby Bar, is one of the most unusual things about California's law school system. Although a student who earns a J.D. at an unaccredited institution may sit the bar exam, s/he does not earn academic credit towards that J.D. until s/he has passed the Baby Bar. A student becomes eligible to sit the Baby Bar upon completion of his/her first year of study. If the student passes the Baby Bar the first time s/he takes it or in two subsequent tries, s/he will receive credit for all work completed up to the time when s/he sat the test. If a student does not pass the test in his/her first three attempts, s/he must be immediately disqualified from the school's J.D. program. The student may keep trying to pass the examination. If s/he does pass the test at some point after his/her first three tries, s/he may be re-admitted to the program, but s/he will receive academic credit only for the first year of study. So, after a student has failed the Baby Bar once, continuing to take courses is a risk. If a student continues in his/her studies on the assumption that s/he will be able to pass the exam in the next two attempts but fails to do so, then none of the courses taken after his/her first year will ever be counted towards a J.D. If the student does eventually pass the exam on some subsequent attempt, all the courses taken between the first year of study and the successful exam will have to be repeated. Students at state-accredited schools who are failing at the end of 1L year or who were admitted with special student status must also take the FYLSX.
Like the bar exam, the Baby Bar consists of both multiple choice and essay questions, but it lasts for one day rather than two. Takers are allotted three hours for 100 multiple-choice questions and four hours for four essay questions. The test is administered in San Francisco and Los Angeles in June and October. It covers only three topics: Contracts, Torts, and Criminal Law. The essay questions on the FYLSX are similar to law school exam questions. Each question presents a fact pattern (that is, it tells a story) and asks the student to discuss what claims the parties in the story might bring against one another or what crimes they could be charged with, as well as what defenses they might levy in return.
The multiple choice and essay sections of the Baby Bar are each given scaled scores out of 400. These scaled scores are converted from different types of raw scores. On the multiple choice section, the raw score is the number of questions correctly answered, so it will be between 0 and 100. On the essay section, each essay is given a score between 40 and 100, so the raw score will be between 160 and 400. Like LSAT scores, scaled scores on the Baby Bar are normalized to account for differences in difficulty between different administrations, which means that the conversion from a raw score to a scaled score may vary slightly from test to test. The student's overall score will be the sum of the two scaled scores, so the highest possible overall score is an 800. The lowest passing score is 560.
FYLSX pass rates for the past ten years can be found on the Committee's website, and these pass statistics are another metric by which prospective students can judge schools. Overall, the pass rate on the FYLSX is very low; for the past five years, it has generally hovered between 20% and 25%. Usually, around 600 to 800 people take the exam during each administration (although in June 2006, 937 people sat the exam). The pass rate goes down for students taking the exam for the second time and down even further for those who have taken the exam two or more times.
Because many unaccredited schools have very small student bodies, pass rates can vary widely from year to year, so it is important to look at the long-term trend. Over the past five years (or ten administrations), the unaccredited school with the highest FYLSX pass rate is Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy, a Christianity-based correspondence school. Its pass rate over that period is 38.8%, with an average of 15.8 people taking the exam each time. No other school's five-year average pass rate exceeds 30%. The lowest pass rates are those of the Aristotle University Institute of Law, the American Heritage University School of Law, the Aristotle University College of Law in Temecula, and the East Bay Law School, all of which have a pass rate of 0% over the past five years. The first three schools had only one or two students sit the exam during that period, but the East Bay Law School produced a total of 21 unsuccessful attempts to pass the FYLSX. Correspondence and distance-learning schools tend to have slightly higher pass rates than fixed-facility schools. (See appendix for a full list of unaccredited schools currently in operation and their FYLSX pass rates for the last five years.)
Although it is not the only state to maintain its own accreditation system for law schools, California is the only state where completely unaccredited schools flourish in such numbers. However, in light of the apparently lacking bar preparation and unknown employment opportunities provided by California's state-accredited and unaccredited schools, it is understandable to wonder why anyone chooses to attend such schools. The answer may lie in another of California's unusual attributes: there are literally no low-cost, ABA-accredited law schools in the state. Most (though certainly not all) states have at least one public law school with cheap in-state tuition. In California, however, the public schools are the UC schools, a prestigious system of universities whose tuition charges are almost as high as those of many private schools, even for California residents. There is no ABA-accredited law school in California with tuition under $30,000 per year. So, for many people, state-accredited and unaccredited schools may offer the only financially feasible route to a J.D.
Apart from the fact that they are a fraction of the cost of even the cheapest of California's ABA-accredited law school options, state-accredited and unaccredited schools offer the advantage that they are catered to working adults, so students can attend school without contorting their lives. This is especially true of correspondence and distance-learning schools, which offer the most flexible academic schedules. So, for students who are confident that they will be able to pass the bar examination and find jobs without any help from the school, a J.D. from a state-accredited or unaccredited school could be a smart career move. Alternatively, these schools are also good options for people who want a J.D. to advance in their current careers but do not plan on actually practicing law.
Historically, in fact, state-accredited and unaccredited schools have attracted and educated some high achievers. Several have produced not only practicing attorneys but also famous judges and politicians. For example:
- Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles and a People's College of Law (unaccredited) graduate. Gilbert Cedillo, a member of the California State Senate, is also a PCL alumnus, although it should be noted that neither he nor Villaraigosa is a member of the California bar.
- The Pacific Coast University School of Law (unaccredited) graduated Kathleen Parker, the first female Superior Court judge in Southern California, and William A. Ross, one of the first African-American Superior Court judges.
- The first online-educated attorneys to be admitted to the Supreme Court Bar were four graduates of Kaplan University's Concord Law School (unaccredited).
- Former California Governor Pat Brown and former Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy both graduated from San Francisco Law School (state-accredited).
State-accredited and unaccredited schools may not provide a low-effort passage into a legal career, but they can be useful tools for self-motivated people with clear career plans.