Interview with Former Dean Erwin Chemerinsky University of California Irvine, School of Law

Published June 2009, last updated July 2009

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of the UC Irvine School of Law was kind enough to grant TLS an exclusive interview about opening a law school that from its very first day has an intent to be amongst the top law schools.  Based on Dean Cherminsky’s energy and enthusiasm and from the accomplishments that have already occurred (including an acceptance rate of 4%, lower than even Yale), his goal seems likely to become a reality.  The TLS questions are bolded.

TLS: With regard to ranking: As a brand-new law school, UCI faces an uphill struggle to become highly-ranked; however UCI has made a clear impression that they intend to do so (and quickly). Realistically, how soon do you see UCI Law competing with UC Davis, UC Hastings, and even UCLA and USC in the rankings?

Our goal is that we will be a top 20 law school, by every measure, from the moment we open our doors and from our first rankings.   I am firmly convinced we will succeed.   The first step in achieving this was to recruit a founding faculty who came from top 20 schools.   Our ten founding faculty who arrived in July 2008 included individuals such as Dan Burk (from Minnesota), Catherine Fisk (from Duke), Carrie Hempel (from USC), Trina Jones (from Duke), Carrie Menkel-Meadow (from Georgetown), Rachel Moran (from University of California, Berkeley), Ann Southworth (from Case Western), Grace Tonner (from Michigan), and Henry Weinstein (adjunct at USC).   A measure of the quality of our founding faculty is that University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter, on his influential blog, ranked UCI Law School’s as tied for tenth in the country in scholarly impact.   We have seven additional, terrific faculty arriving July 1.

The next step in achieving top 20 status is recruiting students of the caliber of a top 20 school.   We have done this.   Our goal was an entering class of 60 students.    We received over 2,700 applications and accepted 110.   68 accepted our offer of admission.   Their median LSAT is 167 and median GPA is 3.65.    This is a class that would certainly rank in the top 20 of all law schools and is quite comparable to schools like UCLA, Texas, and Vanderbilt.

With faculty and students of top 20 caliber, it is now quite realistic to see ourselves as being a top 20 school from the outset.

TLS: Can you briefly discuss any impact (positive or negative) that attending a brand-new law school might have on an applicant seeking employment, especially in this turbulent economy?

I am very confident that our students will succeed in securing employment in private firms, government, and public interest positions.    Over 75 employers have promised to come on campus to interview our students.   Many have said that they will hire our students.   Many federal judges have told me that they are interested in considering our students for clerkships.    Certainly within Orange County, there is tremendous support for the law school from law firms, government offices, and public interest agencies.    These are very likely to hire our students.   But we are also a national law school and will work aggressively to place our students wherever they want to settle.   We have a terrific director of career services, Liz Schroeder, who is committed to placing each of our students in the job of his or her choice.

TLS: Generous scholarships are being offered to this year's incoming 1L class. What are your future plans for scholarships?

We are providing a full scholarship to every student in our entering class for their three years of law school.    Although we probably will not be able to do this again, we plan to provide substantial scholarships to all students in our second class (which begins in August 2010).   My plan is to raise substantial funds so that we always can provide significant scholarships for our students.

TLS: How soon does UCI reasonably expect to be fully accredited by the ABA?

We apply for provisional accreditation in the spring of 2010 (our first year of having students).   We are visited for accreditation in the fall of 2010 and this is voted upon in the spring of 2011.   Assuming we receive provisional accreditation, our students will be able to take any bar exam when they graduate.   We are eligible for full accreditation after five years.   Although there are no guarantees and no promises can be made, we are doing everything necessary for accreditation.

TLS: How exactly do you plan to go about creating a new model for legal education? In other words, UCI's website says that it plans to "build a new school that is relevant to law practice and legal scholarship in the 21st century and that pushes the frontiers of the profession", and I am curious how exactly you plan to do that?

My central vision for the law school is that it must be oriented towards preparing law students for practice at the highest levels of the profession.   This involves both a heavy emphasis on skills and practical experience, and at the same time, a strong interdisciplinary focus.

For example, we have designed a first year curriculum that is innovative and I think achieves these goals.   There will be a year long course on lawyering skills, three units each semester.   It will focus on teaching skills such as negotiation, interviewing, and fact investigation, as well as writing and research.   All students will be required to conduct in-take interviews of real clients for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, the Orange County, Public Defenders, or the Public Law Center.

Students also will take a year long course in the Legal Profession.   This will teach professional responsibility and also teach students about the economics of the profession, the psychology of the profession, and the sociology of the profession.

The remaining courses are organized around methods of analysis.   In the fall, students also will take Common Law Analysis:  Private Ordering (focusing on contracts and some property), Procedural Analysis, and Statutory Analysis (using criminal law to teach this).   In the spring, students also will take Common Law Analysis:  Government Regulation (focusing n torts and some property), Constitutional Analysis, and International Legal Analysis.

In the upper-level years, all students will be required to complete a one or two semester clinical requirement.    We will offer a full upper level curriculum, but there will be a heavy emphasis on both skills and interdisciplinary learning.

TLS: Many people (including Brian Lieter) have taken note of the excellent faculty that you've recruited to teach at UCI Law. It's safe to say that while the Southern California weather was no doubt a draw, there were many factors at play that enabled you to pull off such an impressive feat. What inspired so many brilliant legal scholars to make a career gamble and switch to UCI?

I think our superb faculty came to be part of creating something special.   At our first faculty meeting last August, I began by saying that we have the chance to create the ideal law school and that should guide us in every decision.   The University of California, Irvine, is a terrific university and the reality is that there likely will not be another university of this caliber creating a new law school in my lifetime.   The faculty undoubtedly were attracted, as I was, by the chance to be part of this wonderful opportunity.

TLS: How would you describe the educational philosophy of UC Irvine Law?

In terms of educational philosophy, a law school exists, above all, to prepare students for the practice of law.   Most will be lawyers for some or all of their career.   All will use their legal training, including in government, business, and academia.   I believe that historically law schools have done a poor job of preparing students for the practice of law.   We can do better.  This includes recognizing the inherent interdisciplinary nature of law practice.

TLS: How many seats are you considering having for the incoming class in fall 2010?

My mandate from the Chancellor and Provost at UCI is to have a second entering class at least equal in statistical measures (such as LSAT and GPA) to our inaugural class.   We therefore do no have a fixed target in terms of class size.   My expectation is that we will grow from 60, but we’ll see how much based on the applicant pool.   Over time, we will expand until we are at 200 students per year.

TLS: Obviously UCI will be a top-notch law school; however what is your take on the current glut of law schools churning out more and more JDs in an economy where legal services are in ever-decreasing need?

There always will be a need and demand for well-trained lawyers.   My hope is that we will give the students training and education that will place them in high demand even if the difficult economic times continue.

TLS: Similarly, where does UCI see itself fitting into a niche in the crowded Southern California legal market?

As I have expressed, I believe that UCI will be regarded as a top 20 school from the outset and will graduate students, who by virtue of their education and training, will be very appealing to employers of all types.   I am very confident that our students will do well in Southern California and across the country.

TLS: What plans does UCI have for giving itself a national reputation, specifically in placing graduates in New York, Chicago and DC firms?

We are working hard to give ourselves a national reputation and letting lawyers and judges across the country know about who we are and what we are doing.   Being part of the University of California is a huge advantage in this regard.    The tremendous publicity surrounding the law school’s opening also helps.   We are looking for every opportunity to get the word out about who we are and what we are doing.

TLS: Will the politically conservative atmosphere of Orange County be in any way reflected in the law school?

I have discovered that Orange County is an incredibly diverse area, in every way including politically.    It is a very diverse population, including large Latino and Asian population centers.   There are conservatives and liberals and individuals of all ideology.   The law school has no ideology.   Our advisory board has liberals and conservatives.   Our faculty has liberals and conservatives.   I am sure our students will include liberals and conservatives.   That is the way it should be.   A law school should be a place where individuals of all ideologies feel comfortable and where all ideas are expressed and discussed.

TLS: On a personal note, how have you found the transition from being one of the most prolific and respected legal scholars to now leading the formation of a new law school where your main goals are fundraising, recruiting and leading UC Irvine?

Thank you for the compliment included in the question.   Being dean of UCI Law School is the most thrilling job that I have ever had.  It is incredibly exciting to be part of creating something new and special.   I also am continuing to teach, though less.   This year, when we did not have law students, I taught two undergraduate courses.   Next year, I will teach a large undergraduate political science class in the fall and Constitutional Analysis in the spring to our first year law students.  I am continuing to write, though less, and have written articles in the last year in law reviews such as California Law Review, Duke Law Journal, and Michigan Law Review.  I am continuing to handle a few appeals, though less than before, and in April and May argued three cases in federal courts of appeals.   But the vast majority of my time is going to helping creating a new law school and I love it.