Painting a Picture of California

With Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA on our palette,
how can we go wrong?

map of California map of east coast The difference in magnitude between east coast and west is so hard to conceptualize that I've started with a map. On the left we have a little more than half of California. On the right we have all of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut; a bit of New York, half of Pennsylvania, all of Delaware and Washington DC, and most of Maryland and Virginia. The scale of the two maps is identical.
As of May, 2012, there were 20 ABA-approved law schools in this region, and about 20 million people. In a similar chunk of east coast (for the same time period) there were 45 law schools and 38 million people.

So from the outset, the west coast has every reason to feel different from the east coast. It has twice as much room per person, fewer law school applicants per capita,*and twice as much open space, or what we easterners call "nothing." In that stretch from San Fran to L.A., the east coast has Richmond, DC, Baltimore, Philly, New York, New Haven and Hartford.

*No, my math isn't wrong; many more people from the rest of the country head to New York and DC than to L.A. and San Francisco. One-third of all law school applicants applies someplace in DC.

Also, the west coast was settled much more recently than the east coast. Buildings are newer and not as tall; streets are freeways and six-story walk-ups just don't exist. There's less public transit and more natural scenery.

Although there are half as many law schools as on the east coast, their distribution in terms of quality is about the same. However, instead of categorizing schools as "top, middle, bottom," and incurring the wrath of most admissions officers, I shall proceed geographically to the extent possible.

Middle (a/k/a "Northern") California

There's a lot of California north of San Francisco. According to my mapping software, there are 335 miles between San Francisco and "Hilt," the northernmost town in California on I-5.

Nonetheless, the San Francisco to Sacramento area tends to be called "Northern" California, and we shall conform to this nomenclature. Beginning north and inland, we'll look at McGeorge and UC Davis.


map of McGeorge Pacific

McGeorge Law School was one of the independent law schools common until the 1970s. With the demand for interdisciplinary studies, McGeorge merged with the University of the Pacific. However, its main campus, in Stockton, and its health science center in San Francisco, are so far away that studying at another campus is more a theory than a reality.


moot court room

the law school

McGeorge's facilities are in the mid-range of law schools in terms of appearance. There seem to be few extras, although the basics are well-maintained and comfortable. Like Vermont's law school, it was a little too small for my taste.

I don't know the status on the new dorms; the artist's rendering was on the architect's web page from a few years ago. Completion was slated for the fall of 2012, but that was before the economy took a nosedive. It was projected to hold about a hundred students, plus a gym, etc., signaling a shift from local working people attending school part-time to a broader and younger applicant pool.

new dorm, artist's rendering

UC Davis — King Hall

King Hall Martin Luther King Hall at UC Davis is very well appointed. If you've read my annual MLK Day tributes, you know I'm very fond of the statue (below) that graces the entrance of the building. It may be that because ceramics is my hobby I know how incredibly difficult that piece was to make, or it may simply be its power and beauty, but I can't imagine a better icon for King Hall.

That blue sky isn't an occasional sight in Davis; it's the norm. That's why wine grapes grow so well here; no rain means no sugar to dilute the grape juice. Davis is in the heart of the Napa Valley, home to some of California's best wine-growing land.

No rain also means brush fires, dry, dun-colored grass all summer, and the almost-perennial drought that plagues California. After a decade in gray, fertile Seattle I might be willing to trade, but remember that you are trading. Every place has weather, and it either bothers you or it doesn't.

Along with the dry, sunny skies and the vineyards, Davis hosts the UC's Agriculture Department. That means horses, cows, and sheep live there. And barnyard animals can make a place smell like, umm, a barnyard. If you grew up in agricultural territory, you're probably used to it. If you didn't, your nose may need to get acclimated.

The last caveat is that farmland isn't metropolitan. Davis may have great wine, but don't expect a fabulous little Senegalese restaurant, an Eastern European import store, and a really good pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) shop. In Seattle, such adventures are available everywhere.


statue of Martin Luther King junior
Moot Court Room

Note the difference between Davis's Moot Court room and McGeorge's, above. The tuition at the UCs may be outrageous at over $40,000 for residents, but you can definitely see where the money goes.

(If you're wondering how you'll pay for all that space and light, you might want to wander over to our several pages on financing your education, in the "Choosing a Law School" section.)

The Cit[ies] by the Bay

This phrase most often refers to San Francisco, but I'm feeling expansive; we'll include Berkeley, Palo Alto and Santa Clara in this group. Of course there are a lot of other cities here, but I only write about the ones with ABA-approved law schools.

Cal — Berkeley — Boalt

All three of these words apply to the same school, the one that began the radicalism of the Free Speech Movement and People's Park back in the 1960s and gave the school a leftist reputation that neither it nor the city really deserves. But let's face it, folks, nothing is as radical now as it was in the 1960s.

Oak Grove fence Berkeley campus As far as I know, the education is excellent. I equivocate because I didn't actually go to school there, so I can only pass on what I've heard. And what I've heard is that it costs a fortune! When the economy is soaring, it's well worth it; when the economy is weak, nothing in California is a good investment! The Bay Area is the most expensive in the U.S., primarily because those pesky earthquakes keep knocking things down and we have to pay to build them again.
Berkeley's is one of the best formerly suburban campuses in the United States. The landscaping is superb, there's even a stream, Strawberry Creek, running through campus. That big fence along University Avenue to discourage crime is a bit of a letdown, but even Wimbledon is surrounded by barbed wire. Strawberry Creek, Berkeley

Now I must admit to a prejudice; California frightens me. It's just too Biblical — fires, floods, earthquakes. But if you insist on living in California, Berkeley can't be beat!

"Sherwood’s Berkeley School of Law Library project was recently awarded the top level Honor Award by the AIAEB. ... [T]he new 55,000 square foot South Addition includes relocation and expansion of the library collections, reconfiguration of circulation systems, and creation of library’s new point of entry along with open spaces for social gathering as well as renovation of the 17 existing outdated classrooms."

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Boalt Hall

Now we cross the Bay and head into the place seriously and jokingly referred to as "the City."

Cal Hastings

Hastings is anomalous in so many ways that I'm sure I'll miss a few.

  • It was never a completely independent law school; it was a part of the UC system from its inception, but Justice Hastings' will mandated its own separate Board of Regents, so its rules are different from the other UCs in ways I don't even pretend to understand.
  • It has a special, non-race-based program (LEOP) that survived Prop 209.
  • It's in a densely-populated downtown area just a few blocks from Chinatown, Coit Tower, Market Street, the Convention Center, and Nob Hill.
  • It's within a few miles of the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, and the baseball stadium (which used to be Candlestick Park but now is named after the phone company.

Like Georgetown and Northwestern, it comprises a few buildings huddled in the city, several miles from whatever campus it's theoretically a part of. The architecture reflects that dense, "downtown" feeling. Note the urban sidewalks and lack of greenery, marking this as a true urban campus.

That beautiful new building on the lower right is a parking garage. Go green? Two blocks from the BART? On the other hand, the fees may help offset the cuts in budget from the California legislature. Those cuts are less than for other UCs, says Wiki, because of a clause in Justice Hastings' will that protects the school.

Hastings Law School
Map of downtown San Francisco Hastngs parking lot


USF and Golden Gate

They exist. I've never really seen them. A particularly odd genetic defect makes it impossible for me to walk up or down steep hills, and San Francisco is as steep as it gets. That's why they still have cable cars. The streets are so steep that a regular engine couldn't pull a trolley uphill, and regular brakes couldn't guarantee a stop at the bottom. (I know, that's no longer really true, they're a tourist attraction, but it was true when they were built. And bus engines and brakes have become more reliable, but my feet haven't.)

Both have the disadvantage of being the also-rans in a job market that's already supporting Berkeley, Hastings, and Stanford, so you may have to find your own job or prepare to leave town. Both are also urban campuses, with markedly less "college stuff" nearby. If you want to brave those hills and earthquakes, go for it, but you'll have to rely on someone else to fill you in.

San Francisco's steep streets Steep Street with Cable Car tracks
Notice that the street on the left is considered steep enough to drive on. So, somehow, is the one on the right, but the cable car tracks tell you that only a fool or a daredevil would actually try to park there! So walking there is impossible for me, driving terrifies me, and you'll just have to settle for their official web pages or Google and Wiki Images!


Yes, that heading is larger, grander, than any other on the page. Why? Because Stanford deserves it.

Not just because it's one of the "big three," although it undeniably is, but because its facilities, ambiance and student body are all just that cut above. (I may be prejudiced because it's on level terrain, so I could see it!) So yes, I think that Berkeley is great; but I think that Stanford is magnificent.

"But wait, Loretta!" you say. "You just said that Berkeley is the best buy in California." No I didn't; I qualified it with "if you want to live in California." In 2010 (the most recently published data as I write), U.S. News shows only 40% of Stanford grads working in-state. 20% work in the DC area, another 20% are in New York, and 10% in Chicago. (The remaining 10% are scattered). Berkeley placed over 60% in-state. And with the shift in the economy, I'm betting that more Berkeley grads stayed in-state, and more Stanford grads wandered off.


Entrance to Stanford Campus

That line of royal palms, perfectly maintained, looks like a movie scene of a Middle-Eastern potentate's home.

Oxford University

Stanford quad

Another similarity between Stanford and Oxford is the expansiveness of the campus. This is a true suburban campus, with all the space you need to stretch out and enjoy the weather. And, as with any truly suburban campus, non-student diversions aren't within walking distance.

Stanford Law
I've always called Stanford "the American Oxford;" the three-sided courtyards, with arches and shaded walkways, are strikingly similar. Stanford was wise enough to avoid obvious imitation, substituting Spanish tile for medieval turrets.

I cannot be objective here. Stanford's campus is the only one I like better than that of UPenn, my beloved alma mater (which you may never, ever, call Penn State). So please get a second opinion before taking my word that Stanford's place in the cosmos is quite near Heaven.

Santa Clara — A Great Law School!

At the Chicago Forum around 2010, I spoke to Julia Yaffee, the Senior Assistant Dean at Santa Clara Law. Dean Yaffee and I have known each other for as long as I've been interviewing admissions officers -- over 20 years. As I reminded her of the reasons I've sent so many applicants her way over the years, she updated me on the accomplishments of the school and the faculty.

Kathleen (Cookie) Ridolfi, whom I knew in Philadelphia before I ever started law school, is still being one of the role models to whom I aspired. Her work in jury selection, the Innocence Project, and judicial misconduct, has all received the highest accolades. There are so many stories and awards in her collection that I gave up trying to find a "best" one to link to; I chose the basic link that leads to her many accomplishments.

Dean Yaffee told me several other great things about the school's programs and faculty accomplishments -- so much so that I asked, "Why aren't you listed among the top ten trial advocacy programs?" She responded in the vein of "We don't like to toot our own horn," so I'm tooting it for them.

If you're looking for an awesome combination of Social Justice, litigation. and cutting edge legal reform, Santa Clara belongs high on your list.
As to the facilities, Santa Clara shares a love of open spaces and mission architecture with Stanford. Although the fountain and courtyard reflect a more modern taste, the library's reading room (below) is virtually the archetype of "learning happens here." You can find a nearly identical room at Cornell, Michigan, and U. of Washington (and probably many others). In fact, it saddened me when Penn closed its reading room for a more modern one in a newer building. Santa Clara law school
Santa clara's law library Fountain at Santa Clara

"Southern" California

Just as San Francisco is misnamed "north," Los Angeles is misnamed "south." 150 miles separate UCLA from Imperial Beach, the southernmost point of I-5. However, since our choices are "Southern California" or "La-La Land," we'll stick with tradition. We are again proceeding approximately from north to south; if reputation follows latitude, it's purely coincidental.


So you're driving north on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway, Route 101). The beach, with those famous surfer's waves and those $1,000,000 shanties, is on your left; on the right are crab shacks and $5,000,000 condos. Somewhere along that stretch (I think just past that boat), you make a right, crest a ridge, and find yourself on a campus.

Granted, it's Christian, conservative, and awfully close to forest fires, but the Good Lord did grace it with beauty. (No, I am not being sarcastic or sacrilegious; beauty is a gift. I'll leave it to your judgment whether the summer fires and January mudslides are also God's word.)


What, you want pictures of the classrooms? No one goes to Pepperdine for the Moot Court room! I'm seeing eight tennis courts, a baseball diamond, parks, palm trees and Mulholland Drive (not really, but you get the gist.) You go here because you believe every word Al Jolson sang in "California, Here I Come." If perfect weather and conservative ideology suit you, there's no reason not to apply. (Again, if you're looking for sarcasm you've come to the wrong place; Pepperdine's staff has always been respectful to me, and I intend to be respectful to them.)


Pepperdine's athletic fields


One of my favorite pictures of UCLA is already on the "facilities" page, epitomizing the formerly suburban campus.

I first visited UCLA in 1989; my memory is that there was so much pink marble I felt like Jonah inside the whale. When I returned seven or eight years later to teach an LSAT class, I spent more time outdoors, and loved the beautiful landscaping, especially the sculpture garden. (Do you know that finding an uncontroversial and not-sexually-suggestive sculpture is almost as hard as not seeming to insult Pepperdine?) UCLA Law School

Since then I've spent more time visiting Shahrzad (or Shaherzad, or Shaherazade) on Westwood Blvd., Koreatown, or Little Ethiopia; the Getty Villa, the Huntington Library, the La Brea Tar Pits, and my niece the tattoo artist on Venice Beach. My only rule for Los Angeles is, "Don't take the Freeways." Ride up Sepulveda or La Cienega, cross on Wilshire, Olympic, or Pico. But those famous freeways come to a crawl more often than not, and unless you're going really far, you'll move faster on the surface streets, and the views are more interesting. L.A. architecture is really pretty nice. In fact, some of the best Art Deco I've seen is in L.A.


UCLA Sculpture Garden, detail
Eastern Building detail Sharhhzad Persian restaurant, Westwood, Los Angeles


Southern Cal has always had a reputation for being in a "bad" or "dangerous" part of town. It may be my fondness for ethnic diversity and less mass-produced shops and restaurants, but I prefer the proximity of Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia, and La Brea and MacArthur Parks to another Barnes and Noble. (Not that I have anything against books, but I'm fond of the nontraditional, as you might have guessed.)

map of USC area

USC Law School USC logo
USC Law School?

USC is camera-shy! Google turns up people, and the web page turns up words.

Both of the buildings on the left came up under a search of "USC Law." The one above matches my memory better. In general, I remember that USC, like many private schools, showed its money in its interior design -- padded leather where UCLA had molded plastic. But that was 20 years ago, and it may simply be that USC reminded me more of Penn, and UCLA reminded me more of Berkeley. To make sure I'm being clear: four fine campuses, just based on two different models.


Loyola Marymount

There is a law school, and there is a campus, but not very near each other. The campus is right by the main airport, LAX. The law school is much closer to downtown.

loyola law buildings

Loyola Marymount is fond of funky buildings and funkier artwork, as their own page banner shows. Nothing is quite square, and that tilted metal structure front and center is artwork. The pretty sedate-looking building on the far right is the law library, I believe.

UC Irvine

I faced the same dilemma that U.S. News did. Irvine isn't accredited... but it IS a UC... I made my decision based on personal rather than didactic reasons. I've known Janice Austin, the Assistant Dean for Admissions, for longer than either of us cares to admit, and there was no way I was going to review California law schools and omit hers. And to be fair, I did visit it. A week after she arrived, I flew in and surprised her with a personal hug when she thought we were having a phone conversation. Today we talked on the phone, so I could fill you in on Irvine's status. It takes five years to get full accreditation, so the earliest that will happen is summer 2014. Spring 2015 will be its first U.S. News ranking, and we need something between now and then! Janice Austin, Admissions Honcho
UC Irvine Law

Irvine law believes that small classes provide the best opportunity for learning. The law school is deeply committed to small class size; even at full capacity, they're looking for 180 students per year maximum.

As a new law school, Irvine had no template they had to conform to. So they began their design by writing to judges and top 500 law firms, asking, "What should today's lawyers look like?' and built a school around those answers. This gives them both the freedom and burden to get it right.


I'm guessing that means a lot of emphasis on clinicals, and pragmatic approach in the classroom. Janice says the Academic Skills program is intended to make sure every student masters book-learning, writing, and verbal skills of negotiation and advocacy.

And Those Five Other Schools

I've visited Southwestern and Whittier, but then they moved to completely new facilities while I was busy exploring the wonders of the La Brea Tar Pits. I visited Chapman and Western State on my way back from San Diego, but the freeway traffic was so awful I can't remember anything but the time it took to get back. LaVerne wasn't accredited then (and isn't now).

"Southernmost" California

We've finally reached the real Southern California. There are three law schools here, but I'm only going to talk about one. I don't believe I've ever seen Cal. Western, and as much as I appreciate the wonderful staff at Thomas Jefferson, I fear they'll lose their accreditation. So the only school down here that I would recommend to you based on my personal knowledge is USD.

The University of San Diego

The U. of San Diego is proud of their Moot Court Team, but I'm more interested in the stone and wood behind them. Fine old buildings are an east coast tradition, and this one is definitely to my liking.

USD Moot Court Board in front of law school


Here's another fine photo, showing the Spanish and tropical influence as well as the Roman Catholic.

USD campus

I think this picture captures most people's sense of San Diego as Fantasyland. The Alhambra-like combination of Spanish and Moorish influence, palm trees and blue skies -- all we need is Tinkerbell!

This really does look like, as Walt Disney said, a place where "when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true." [yes, it's a song link; this is a Loretta's-ear view, after all.]

And what better place to end our tour of California than with its most famous movie star. That might be Walt, or it might be Jiminy Cricket, but either way, it's California.


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