The University of California at Irvine School of Law debuted in the U.S. News rankings at number 30. That’s a very impressive showing for a new law school that only opened in 2009.
But it’s also a disappointment. Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and the university itself set the very ambitious, and very public goal of debuting as a U.S. News top-20 law school (or perhaps even “a law school that would be ranked in the top 20, by every measure, from the outset”), and he had a lot going for him. Donors paid for full-tuition scholarships for every student in the first year of the class, a fifty percent scholarship for the second class, and a thirty-three percent scholarship for the third class, allowing the school to immediately recruit excellent students. Chemerinsky, himself a leading constitutional law scholar, recruited a top-notch (albeit ideologically non-diverse) faculty.
The school, however, met two major headwinds. The first is that thanks to a lack of financial support form the state legislature, in-state tuition at all UC law schools has skyrocketed, and Irvine is no exception–tuition clocks in at almost 45K a year, out of state around 51K, which is on the very high-end for state law schools, and is comparable to private school tuition. Meanwhile, the job market for young attorneys imploded, giving Irvine a double burden–students don’t want to get into a lot of debt, and are less likely to take a flyer on a new law school lacking a strong alumni network and the reputational advantages of established law schools. Chemerinsky’s emphasis on attracting students committed to public interest work surely hasn’t helped; pubic interest jobs rarely pay enough to justify that kind of tuition.
Headwinds in recruiting top students was especially problematic for UC Irvine’s top-20 goal because one could predict (and I did predict) that its initial reputational score would be far below the quality of its faculty. (The biggest factors in U.S. News rankings are student LSAT, student GPA, and reputation as measured by surveys of professors and attorneys.) I’ve learned from experience at George Mason that the scholarly productivity of faculty is hardly the only factor that U.S. News voters take into account. If UC Irvine had instead been inaugurated as, say, the Princeton or Johns Hopkins School of Law, it likely would have had an immediate top-20 or perhaps even top-10 reputational score, as its “brand name” would have matched its faculty quality; instead, it’s number forty-two.
Chemersinky tried, though. He admitted a tiny entering class of 89 this year, compared to 126 last year–only this year’s new students count for Irvine’s inaugural U.S. News rating–what Paul Caron calls a “US News hail Mary.” (I’m not criticizing him for doing so, that’s exactly how I would have played it, if finances allowed). But this was only enough to attract students with a median LSAT of 164 and median GPA of 3.53. Those are, in fact, amazing numbers for a young law school, but not nearly enough to get the school into the U.S. News top 20, and indeed are not top-20 statistics themselves. For example, at U.S. News number 20 USC, the relevant medians are 166 and 3.76.
I doubt top-20 U.S. News status is in UC Irvine’s near future. Reputational scores are notoriously sticky, and I assume class size is eventually going to have to rise substantially, making it difficult to sustain, much less enhance, student quality as measured by U.S. News. The law school’s website lists forty-five full-time faculty members, including clinical faculty, and it seems unlikely that the school can sustain itself financially on tuition revenue from three hundred-plus students, almost all of whom are receiving some sort of financial aid (of the 126 students who matriculated in 2013, 117 received financial aid). And indeed, the law school’s plans were based on eventually attracting six hundred students, or two hundred per class.
All of this raises a question: with tuition much higher than is feasible for students interested in a public interest career, a saturated market for young lawyers, and a very crowded law school market in California, what is Irvine’s raison d’être?