- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

IRVINE, Calif. | A new law school opening next fall in Southern California is offering a big incentive to top students who might be thinking twice about the cost of a legal education during the recession - free tuition for three years.

The financial carrot is part of an ambitious strategy by Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned constitutional law scholar and dean of the new school at the University of California at Irvine, to attract Ivy League-caliber students to the first new law school in the state in 40 years.

Scholarship winners will be chosen for their potential to emerge three years later as legal stars on the ascendance. Only the best and brightest need apply, but the school hopes to offer full scholarships to all 60 members of its inaugural class in 2009. Subsequent classes will be on a normal tuition basis.

Mr. Chemerinsky is convinced the prospect of free education, combined with a public-interest curriculum and the University of California moniker, will quickly fill his first class and eventually land Irvine among the nation’s best law schools.

“Our goal is to be a top 20 law school from the first time we are ranked,” he said.

Such a rapid rise to prominence would be unprecedented, but not impossible, said Richard Morgan, the founding dean of Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1998, when that state had no law school.

“It’s like trying to fly the plane while you’re still building it,” he said.

Mr. Morgan warned that starting a new law school is daunting, and that the competition for top-notch students is fierce.

There are 200 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, including two new schools in North Carolina. Several others are in the planning stages in New York state, and dozens of unaccredited schools operate across the country.

At last count, 141,719 students were enrolled in ABA-accredited schools.

“During an economic downturn, there is historically an increase in law school applications,” Mr. Chemerinsky said, explaining it’s an attractive option for undergrads with poor job prospects.

Luring top students hasn’t been the only challenge for Mr. Chemerinsky, an unapologetic liberal.

A year ago, he was a professor at Duke University when he was tapped to be dean of the new school in the heart of conservative Orange County. He was soon fired amid concerns about his liberal politics, as evidenced on numerous occasions during his 21 years as a professor at the University of Southern California.

He was rehired in the span of a weekend after campus protests and editorials cited his treatment while making the case for academic freedom.

Mr. Chemerinsky insists the law school will have no ideological orientation.

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