A glimpse into the La Verne College of Law’s rocky road to national accreditation
by Des Delgadillo
photography by Brooke Grasso
In the world of legal education, a nod from the American Bar Association — the perennial godfather of stateside law — is practically paramount. The ABA can make or break a law school’s reputation. In many cases, a law school without ABA approval is like cereal without milk: Just as one might hesitate to eat cereal that is dry and flavorless, prospective law students and employers are just as hesitant to hire from a school that does not appear to meet the ABA’s rigorous standards, especially in the private sector. A Princeton Review article even went as far as to call a law degree from a non-accredited school “a ticket to nowhere,” particularly because many states allow graduates from only ABA-approved schools to sit the bar exam. Those who take the non-ABA route are usually iced out.
The University of La Verne College of Law chased that coveted ABA stamp of approval for nearly two decades, significantly longer than anyone in administration had planned. During that time, the college went through periods of both high-spirited adulation and all-time low morale, challenging faculty to pick up the pieces. This past March, however, the College of Law struck academic pay dirt.
The College of Law received full approval from the American Bar Association on March 14, making it the only law school in the Inland Empire to reach the highest watermark of law school authenticity. “I don’t think anybody involved in the planning could have foreseen this being a 16-year process,” Associate Dean of Student Affairs Randy Rubin says. “There was sufficient bumps and bruises and cuts and a lot of carnage along the way.”
It was a process that administration expected to take four years. It took closer to 16 to 20 years, including the rigorous planning stages. “The lesson learned is that, to achieve national accreditation, you need to have a committed faculty that is all on the same page and focusing on student success and student learning, and you need to have the administrative leadership and support to motivate people to stick to their agenda,” University Provost Jonathan Reed says.
Laying the foundation
Although the latest concerted push for accreditation started 20 years ago, the College of Law had bid for accreditation once before. A scant eight years after the College of Law opened, officials filed their very first application in 1978. The ABA denied the application, citing its infrastructure, which at the time was quite weak. The law school was housed on the main ULV campus, and the ABA felt that there needed to be more space to accommodate faculty and students.
Following the 1978 rejection, despite a confident attitude that accreditation was eminent, the conversation went silent for 20 years. Not until the late 1990s, under an almost entirely new guard, did the real journey begin. The College of Law took its first steps on the rocky path to accreditation in 1996 when the University’s Board of Trustees put the plan into motion. Shortly after the decision was made to pursue accreditation, an independent agency conducted a study that determined that the accreditation efforts should be focused on the main law school — at the time, there were two law schools owned by the University: one on the main ULV campus and one in Woodland Hills. The decision was made to leave the Woodland Hills campus out of the accreditation process entirely, and the main law school relocated to Ontario — both significant events that halted the application process. Finally, with a sparse student body of about 175 students and a new home in Ontario, the College of Law filed its first application for ABA approval in 2000. It was denied.
“Institutionally, we were very confident that we would get it, probably institutionally overconfident,” says Rubin, who twice served as interim dean during key points in the College’s history. “When we didn’t get it in the spring of 2001, it really caused a morale issue throughout the student body and certainly throughout the faculty. We somewhat went into a lethargic downturn at that point.”
The blow was not softened by the departure of Dean Kenneth Held, who had served for 16 years before stepping down to return to the classroom. The atmosphere of disappointment was palpable throughout the College.
A dean gets it ‘Dunn’
Rubin filled the role of interim dean for the first time during the 2002-03 school year, during which the school focused efforts on establishing a full-time dean with extensive ABA experience. Don Dunn became the law school’s next full-time leader. “We felt that he was our best shot at shepherding through the provisional process,” Rubin says.
Reinvigorated confidence aside, the law school’s application was denied again in 2003. “In some ways, they were saying, ‘You haven’t made sufficient progress since the last time you applied, and that progress can’t be made with a dean who just showed up,’” Rubin says. “Now in some ways I can take issue with that conclusion, because I worked with him several months before he actually came out, through email, phone, etc. So when Don got here in June, we were all ready to go. While we were making progress, they wanted to see Don in place a little bit longer. At least that’s what they indicated.”
With Dunn a more permanent fixture as dean in 2005, the College of Law filed its third ABA application. This time they were successful, receiving provisional accreditation in February of 2006.
The College of Law’s standing with the ABA was not the only thing that improved in 2006. Student enrollment began to grow significantly. By 2008, when Rubin served his second stint as interim dean, student enrollment had doubled compared to his first stint five years earlier. “There’s a certain amount of energy,” Rubin says. “There was a proliferation of student organizations. There was a greater life at the institution that having a robust student body brings.”
On an institutional level, the College of Law was teeming with the kind of morale that comes from being nationally recognized. But fate was about to deal the college another crippling blow.
An untimely departure
Dunn arrived at the College of Law in June of 2003 and helped propel the school into national notoriety in three short years. His rapport with the law students was uncanny, and he was quickly a favorite among administration, not only because of his knack for throwing great parties, but also because of his patient temperament and position as a leader among equals. “Students loved him,” Rubin says. “He stood out and shook students’ hands as they greeted him as they showed up. And he was well loved by faculty and staff and students.”
The Dunn era of the College of Law was tragically cut short when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, forcing Rubin to reprise his role as interim dean in August of that year. “(He) battled like crazy,” Rubin recalls. “He fought it and fought it and fought it. Did everything that he possibly could to beat it. But the opponent was a little too strong for him.” Dunn died in January of 2008. He was 62.
The College of Law welcomed Allen Easley in 2008 as Dunn’s successor. Under his direction, the College continued its upward academic trajectory until 2011, when the proverbial rug was pulled out from under the institution when its application for approval was denied, forcing it right back to square one. The suspension of the College of Law’s accreditation came at the worst possible time, with prospective students unsure about the law school’s future.
“The suspension of the COL’s fully accredited status took place during the summer that our class was deciding on which law school we would attend, so putting our trust – and our money – behind a school whose accreditation might not be intact by our (third) year required a huge leap of faith,” says Sarah Peach, who graduated from the College of Law in 2014.
The College of Law filed an emergency petition for provisional accreditation, and by March of 2012, the ABA had once again granted them provisional approval.
Still, there was much work to be done.
Raising the bar
When the ABA denied the College of Law accreditation in 2011, one of the factors cited was an unsatisfactory bar pass rate. “When you go to a school that has had a persistently low bar pass rate, the students begin to believe that it’s either because of the school, or that they’re just not good enough to pass the bar exam, and so you need a good win,” says Jendayi Saada, who came on as assistant dean for the Center for Academic and Bar Readiness in June of 2012. After the College of Law re-obtained its provisional status in 2012, the focus shifted to improving those rates.
“I think much more important than money and budget is the human aspect, and the talent, the competence, the dedication and the focus of the faculty preparing students for the bar and giving them the best shot they possibly have at passing the bar,” Reed says.
The second half of 2012 saw a beefed-up curriculum and a number of new academic support services and personnel, all aimed at preparing law students for the toughest test of their lives.
“Our goal was to strengthen the students from the first year, continue to strengthen them throughout the three years of law school using academic support-style methods, and then in the third year have a very vigorous early bar prep class,” Saada says.
February of 2013 saw more low pass rates, but the July exam yielded promising results, with the La Verne pass rate falling within the ABA’s guidelines. July of 2013 also marked a show of solidarity between Saada and her students.
“That was the year that I took the bar exam with our students,” she says. “I studied with them and I took the bar exam with them and fortunately passed. I wanted to encourage them to participate in the programs, and so I participated in the programs.”
The February 2014 bar pass rates showed a vast improvement, with La Verne’s students scoring a full 19 points above the state average. “That was the year we beat Stanford by a full 10 points,” Saada says proudly.
Holmes takes the helm
The final push for full accreditation picked up steam with the appointment of Gilbert Holmes as the College of Law’s newest dean. The New York University alumnus landed at the University of La Verne College of Law in June of 2013 and immediately began challenging and reforming everything from the college’s curriculum to the tuition model. With 23 years of legal education experience under his belt and another 16 running his own private practice in New York City, Holmes came to La Verne with a desire to push the envelope. Holmes’ extensive experience in legal education gives him an additional advantage: He has fought in the trenches of the accreditation battle before.
Holmes worked at Texas-Wesleyan University at a time when the school also sought to move from provisional to full ABA accreditation. In 1999, Texas-Wesleyan received the accreditation it had been after only 10 short years after the school initially opened in 1989. “Having been through that process, I was aware that it’s an ongoing challenge to meet the standards, and it requires everybody to have ten toes in to make it happen,” Holmes says. “I also learned from that experience that after getting accreditation, the real work begins, because you can’t rest on your laurels.”
The College of Law once again received provisional accreditation in 2012, so when Holmes arrived a year later, student morale was hopeful.
“My being hired was a sign that the Board was still invested in the future of the College of Law, so that added some hopefulness to the morale,” Holmes says.
Holmes set about making changes to the College of Law immediately, starting with the adoption of his True Tuition Model, which set a flat rate on the law school’s tuition. For a full-time student, the flat tuition is set at $25,000, a significantly lower rate than previously. The increased affordability coupled with a surge in bar exam performance put the College of Law over the top.
The full ABA accreditation the University finally received in March of 2016 symbolizes the culmination of the concerted efforts on the behalf of faculty and administrators. For many, it is only an affirmation of the work the College of Law has been doing all along. “They are working to prepare students for the legal community in what I would say is a more realistic way than some of the other schools, and I think that will be exemplified and spread as a result of the ABA accreditation,” says Danica Crittenden, who graduated from the College of Law in 2010.
Still, the College’s recognition means the world to faculty members who have been involved in the effort from the very beginning, faculty members like Rubin. “One of the things that I’m happy about is because it gets old hearing others say, ‘Well, you’re not fully approved’ or ‘You haven’t been able to get full approval’ or ‘You’re only provisionally approved. What if you don’t get full approval?’ I think what getting full approval does is it provides a certain level of permanence and stability.”
Ultimately, the ABA’s stamp of approval is cause for celebration, but not complacency. Holmes plans on moving forward in reshaping the way ULV tackles legal education. “Journeys are just that,” Holmes says. “I always viewed accreditation as a milestone and not a destination, and so the journey continues.”