The D.C. School of Law is on the verge of winning accreditation, a step that would give wider acceptance to the unusual institution just days after Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon said it should close.
Getting the stamp of approval from the American Bar Association would be an important step in the evolution of the school, which emphasizes the training of minorities and District residents in public-interest law.
Without accreditation, the school's first graduates -- who complete course work in May -- would be prohibited from taking the D.C. bar examination.
With accreditation, the school's students would, for the first time, be eligible to receive federal financial aid.
The Bar Association's House of Delegates is expected to act tomorrow or Tuesday on an evaluation committee's recommendation favoring accreditation. The house rarely overturns a committee recommendation.
That the mayor would recommend closing the school to save money at a time when it is on the threshold of acceptance by the legal community is in keeping with its history.
"The school has been fraught with controversy since its inception," William L. Robinson, the school's dean, told a group of students and faculty last week after Dixon's announcement.
"That controversy continues. But there is no one thing that should lead us to lose our cool."
The D.C. School of Law evolved from the Antioch Law School, an unconventional institution that emphasized service to the poor.
When Antioch was in danger of closing in the mid-1980s, the D.C. Council sought to save it by merging it with the University of the District of Columbia. UDC trustees rejected the idea. The council went ahead and created a public school of law in 1986, without support from then-Mayor Marion Barry.
The new school's mission was twofold: to provide affordable legal education to large numbers of minorities and city residents, and to offer -- through clinics -- legal representation to low-income people, particularly city residents.
It is that latter mission that draws many of the students to the school, which is temporarily housed in an office building at 719 13th St. NW.
Kewana Mason, 33, a second-year student, visited law schools at Stanford University, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan before she decided to attend the D.C. School of Law.
"I didn't like the atmosphere at those schools," said Mason, a graduate of Howard University who spent six years in the Air Force.
"It was very pompous. I did not want to be at a school where I had to make an appointment with a professor to get a question answered."
At the District of Columbia School of Law, which now has 158 students, Mason would have smaller classes. Tuition would be cheaper -- $2,600 a year for city residents.
Howard University, by comparison, charges $7,100 a year, and tuition at many other local schools is much higher.
But most important to Mason and others like her, the school said it would provide an opportunity to give legal assistance to those most in need: tenants who have gripes with landlords, government employees who expose waste, juveniles charged with criminal offenses and senior citizens battling government bureaucracies.
John Kahl, 23, a first-year student from Virginia, would pay less to attend law school at George Mason University. But the D.C. School of Law's service mission drew him from Fairfax County to downtown Washington.
"So many of the people in the District cannot afford legal representation," said Kahl, an editor of the school's student publication. "They have controls placed on them without being able to do anything about it. We can help them and get hands-on experience at the same time."
Students at the D.C. School of Law also receive training in law school basics, such as constitutional law and torts. But after three years, they will have spent 650 hours in supervised contact with clients, many of them poor or minorities.
Dixon's proposal to phase out the school followed the recommendation of the Rivlin Commission, appointed by Barry to study the city's finances. The commission questioned whether the city could afford to finance a public law school given its budget deficit, now estimated at $302 million for this fiscal year.
The commission suggested that the city could achieve the school's goals at a lower cost by awarding grants to city residents to attend local law schools and by providing funds for other schools to expand their clinical programs.
But the council reacted quickly. It took a dozen members less than a day to unite in opposition to the mayor's plan.
Council aides said members of the D.C. Council are likely to continue to be strong supporters of the school. Some see the school as an integral part of what eventually would become a state university system. Some have alumni of its predecessor institution on their staffs. Some view the school fondly because its creation was the council's first major act in opposition to Barry.
For now, aides said, that appears to be enough to continue funding for the school, which gets about $4 million a year.
The next hurdle might be how well the school's first graduates do on the D.C. bar exam this summer.
"If they do well, the school will make it," one council aide said. "If they do not, there are rocky times ahead."