The Legal Beat
Requiem For My Law School
Posted on Wednesday April 26, 2017
I will leave it to others to report, examine, and dissect the upcoming demise aka closing of Whittier Law School.
This is a very personal memorial to a school that had really died some years ago, although it didn’t know it then.
I graduated as a member of Whittier’s first day class way back in dinosaur days in 1976. The graduating first day class had 50 students in it, as the school had flunked out two thirds of the class that it didn’t think could pass the California Bar exam. (“Look to the left, look to the right; two thirds of you won’t be here at graduation.”) 49 out of the remaining 50 of us passed the July 1976 bar exam on the first try. The one who had to retake it in February, 1977 passed then, and so, we had a 100 percent (not a typo) bar passage rate within a year after graduation.
Midway through law school, Whittier College acquired what had been known as Beverly College of Law, started by Beverly Rubens and others in the mid-1960s as a night school only. In 1973, Beverly College of Law began a day program, and I was in that first class.
Beverly Rubens is an amazing woman and educator of lawyers. She did not have an undergraduate degree when she enrolled at Southwestern University Law School in the early 1950s. She worked as a secretary to Tom Bradley, then in the Los Angeles Police Department and, in 1973, the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles. It was Bradley who encouraged her to go to law school. She graduated first in her law school class in 1954.
The philosophy of Beverly College of Law was to provide legal educations for those working adults who wanted to change careers. While others may sniff on the focus of “teaching to the bar,” the fact remains that when Beverly Rubens and others were in charge, the school enjoyed enviable bar passage rates every year. I’ll stipulate that such didn’t translate into the ability to get jobs. Nope, the caste system was alive and well then, as it is now, and so no one wanted to hire anyone from Beverly, then Whittier.
We all made our own ways, without any help from anyone, thank you. We became prosecutors, public defenders, attorneys in private practice, be it in small firms or solos. We became judges, appellate justices, corporate counsel, and the whole panoply of other kinds of careers that law degrees can prepare you for. Some of my classmates were very entrepreneurial, going out on their own from Day 1, as it was all they ever wanted. Others established niche practices still extant.
Beverly Rubens taught a number of classes, including torts, contracts, and evidence. I was fortunate to have her for evidence, where her ability to simplify convoluted and difficult concepts was legendary. She also has a wicked sense of humor. I still remember her introduction to the admission hearsay exception. She used the example of a fender-bender, and the driver of the rear car getting out to say he was sorry. “Don’t ever say that,” she admonished the class. It’s an admission, and off we went into the world of hearsay exceptions. She also published a series of outlines, far superior to anything else on the market at that time. I wish they were still in print.
There are many who disparage the practical approach to teaching law students not only the substantive law, but also how to prepare and pass the bar exam. Our instructors were almost all practicing attorneys, whose love of teaching prompted them into adjunct academia. They told us about how this concept or that concept operated in the real world, not in the rarefied academic world. They had real world examples and dilemmas to share with us, to teach us. While casebooks and hornbooks may present black letter law, the school’s philosophy was that practicing law was anything but black letter, that we all ought to learn that sooner, rather than later, and learn how to confront issues that arose daily in practice. It wasn’t on the job training, but the professors’ practical, real-life experiences were invaluable learning lessons.
So many legal educators, lawyers and others disparage the kind of education that we received back in those dinosaur days at an upstart little law school that wasn’t at all concerned with pedigree. We learned IRAC and wrote many exams; a passing grade was 73, not 70. The school was rigorous, concerned about turning out future members of the bar who knew the law, could pass the Bar exam, and generate careers for themselves.
The existential question is what is the purpose of a law school? Is it to educate and prepare people for future careers as lawyers? That’s what I thought it was for, but silly me. It seems like law professors spend more time and energy on their own agendas (writing, researching, consulting, and so on) than they spend on teaching. (This not the case just in law school academia.) Shouldn’t teaching be the first priority?
If you’ve never read Brian Tamanaha’s blistering indictment of law school education, Failing Law Schools (affiliate link), then you should.
The Washington University law professor justifiably rips apart legal education for failing to do what it’s charged with doing. As I’ve said before, a revolution in legal education is overdue.
The appalling disregard for educating law students and getting them ready for practice is shameful. Students are on their own. As I saw Whittier’s bar results drop over the decades, I cringed and mourned the death of the kind of education I had received.
Whittier College made a business decision. Some think that it abandoned its law school by pulling the plug after looking at recent lousy bar results and equally lousy post bar employment rates. I think the law school abandoned its students.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected].