Dec 9 (Reuters) - Every year, thousands of third-year law
students across the country apply for coveted federal judicial
clerkships, and every year, the same law schools -- Yale,
Stanford, and Harvard -- top the list of those whose graduates
populate federal judges' chambers.
But for the class of 2012, which began receiving its
clerkship offers this fall, a new name has muscled in among the
elite old guard: The University of California at Irvine School
of Law, which only opened its doors in 2009 and is still
waiting on full accreditation by the American Bar Association.
Despite not yet having bestowed a single law degree, UC
Irvine says it has placed nearly a fifth of its 2012 graduates
with district and circuit court judges. That rate was recently
surpassed only by Yale, with 27 percent, and Stanford, with 24
percent, according to the latest figures from U.S. News & World
Report, which tracks clerkship placement.
Had it been ranked, Irvine would have placed ahead of
Harvard, which landed 18 percent of its graduates in federal
clerkships in 2009.
"It's an impressive rate," said Debra M. Strauss, professor
of business law at Fairfield University and former director of
the judicial clerkship program at Yale Law School.
With just 58 students, UC Irvine's 2012 class is relatively
small, but its results are "still striking," Strauss said.
"These are very prominent judges ... truly prized clerkships."
UC Irvine Law has not yet been ranked by US News, but the
ABA granted the school provisional accreditation in June, and
could grant full accreditation by 2014, said Rex Bossert, a
spokesman for the law school.
ESTABLISHING A REPUTATION
The clerkship selection process is a high-stakes game for
all parties. Top law firms often pay former clerks generous
signing bonuses, and law schools hunger for the prestige that
comes from sending graduates to the most respected judges. But
Strauss said it typically takes years to build up a
clerkship-focused culture at a law school. "One would not have
expected the traditional channels of feeding to clerkships to
be in place so quickly," she said.
So how did UC Irvine do it? By relying on two of the usual
suspects: money and influence.
From its conception in 2001, Irvine's founders sought to
build a "dream" law school that would draw top student talent
to the well-to-do city about 50 miles outside of Los Angeles,
said Charles Cannon, assistant dean of development and external
To that end, the school gave a full scholarship to every
member of its inaugural class, which increased applications to
the extent that admissions officers were able to select just
four percent of applicants. In comparison, Yale accepted 7
percent of applicants to its class of 2013, Stanford accepted 9
percent, and Harvard accepted 11 percent. The inaugural class's
law-school admission test scores were also on par with those at
the top law schools.
The other major factor in Irvine's unexpectedly high
placement rate is the law school's dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, a
prominent constitutional scholar and Harvard Law graduate.
Chemerinsky told Reuters in an interview that he has made
judicial clerkships a focus of his tenure, and has reached out
to judges across the country.
"We have terrific students, and the judges who have met
with them and made them offers have recognized that," he said.
"I know a lot of judges and am known by a lot of judges, so I
think that helped."
$30 MLN IN PRIVATE DONATIONS
Irvine is one of five law schools in the University of
California system, which includes Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis and
UC Hastings. All but Hastings were top-20 law schools in the
most recent US News rankings, but none placed as many federal
judicial clerks as Irvine: Berkley placed 11 percent, UCLA
School of Law 9 percent, and UC Davis 5 percent.
Like the other UC law schools, Irvine receives only 13
percent of its funding from the state, which has been slashing
money to universities for the past several years. In response
the school raised $30 million in private donations over a
three-year campaign beginning in 2007, and plans to raise an
additional $70 million over the next five years, Cannon said.
Among the largest gifts are contributions of $20 million from
the Donald Bren Foundation and gifts of more than $100,000 each
from dozens of law firms, including Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and
O'Melveny & Myers.
"Securing private funding has been critical for all UC law
schools," Cannon said. "Private gifts make all the difference
between a decent and a top-tier institution."
UC Irvine Law graduates will clerk for federal judges in
the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth U.S. Circuit Courts of
Appeals, along with eight federal trial judges.
However, it remains to be seen whether the school will keep
up its clerkship-placement success as its acceptance rate
rises. For the class of 2013, the school provided 50-percent
scholarships, and its acceptance rate was 18 percent. The class
of 2014 received 33-percent scholarships, and its rate was just
under 24 percent. But LSAT scores for the classes of 2013 and
2014 stayed the same as those of the inaugural class.
Elizabeth Schroeder, the law school's dean of students,
said the class of 2013 "is performing on target with the first
class, and we expect them to do as well" in clerkship
Irvine has also set aside up to 20 full scholarships for
the class of 2015 -- some specifically for public interest law
-- and additional financial aid will be available based on
need, Cannon said.
Strauss said that UC Irvine Law's future placement success
will depend on whether the school can continue to attract top
talent and establish a reputation over time. But the early
numbers don't hurt. "When a clerkship program is strong from
the start, the trend tends to be self-perpetuating," she said.
(Reporting by Moira Herbst)
Follow us on Twitter: @ReutersLegal
(A previous version of this story stated that UC Irvine Law
was expected to receive full ABA accreditation in five years.
The school could receive full accreditation by 2014.)