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For those with tight budgets and time constraints, getting a law degree online from a “correspondence” school may be one of the real opportunities of a virtual world. Then again, it may just be another Internet scam. That’s the lesson recently learned by D. Kelly Allin. At 42, a father of four and chief executive officer of a medical products assembly company, Allin is not your traditional law school student. More than a year ago, Allin enrolled in California’s Saratoga University, an Internet-based law school. Now, a year into the program and $6,000 in tuition fees later, the school’s dean, Michael Narkin, has disappeared. Dozens of students have been left in the lurch, with some suing to have their tuitions reimbursed. Also, state officials are considering proposals to beef up oversight of online “correspondence” schools. “I’m mad at myself and sort of ashamed I got myself into this position,” said Allin, who has been left trying to transfer to an alternative school without an official transcript of his first year of law school study. “The worst case, and it’s hard to think about, is that I can go back to day one and start over,” he said. Saratoga University has been licensed by the California Bureau of Private Postsecondary Vocational Education (BPPVE) since 1996. It operates from a San Jose address and claims to have 100 students. A link to the school’s now-disabled Web site appears on the State Bar of California’s Web site as being among the “correspondence” law schools that have registered in adherence with the State Bar’s admission rules. Yet the school’s dean and sole professor, Narkin, does not have a valid license to practice law in California. He was admitted to the Bar in 1974, but resigned with pending charges in 1986, according to the State Bar of California’s online database. The allegations against him included malpractice and stolen client funds, but no criminal charges were ever filed. His status now stands as simply “resigned.” “Not having a law license doesn’t preclude him from operating a business,” said Pamela Mares, the information officer at the BPPVE, a division of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. Mares said that between January 1999 and 2003, there were 18 student complaints against Narkin. And again from January 2004 until now, there have been 17 student complaints filed. “The school is not officially closed down,” said Mares. “We’re trying to contact Narkin.” Narkin did not return phone calls left at the school or at the last home telephone number registered to him. He has not provided BPPVE with the required information on his students. Some students have turned to the courts and won judgments against Narkin in Santa Clara and Fresno counties. The most recent was awarded on Aug. 11 to student Jeffrey Vogland in the amount of $5,022 in a default judgment in Fresno small claims court. Vogland v. Narkin, No. 04CESC01852. “Basically I’ve got a judgment for $5,300 of my money and nothing to show for it,” said Vogland, who enrolled in the summer of 2001. Vogland completed four courses and, like Allin, is trying to transfer the credits without official transcripts. “If I had the transcripts I wouldn’t have to repeat that work and I wouldn’t have to spend another $3,000.” California is the only state that allows students of correspondence programs to sit for the bar exam. The schools are not accredited by the American Bar Association. But they can register with the California Bar once they have been given “degree- granting authority” from the BPPVE, said Jerome Braun, the State Bar senior executive for admissions. The State Bar requires that a law school be in good standing with the BPPVE and that it file annual reports. “That is about the extent of oversight beyond that their students have to pass the first-year law students exam [also known as the 'baby bar'],” said Braun. The bar exams are the main checks that ensure the schools are turning out people with the basic education required to practice law, he added. Braun said there are some proposed changes, pending public comment, that would allow the bar examiners to assess an annual fee on schools so it could provide more oversight. But Braun is not sure it is necessary. “There could be more oversight, if they wanted to spend the resources on it,” admitted Braun. “But there are 11 or 12 of these correspondence schools out there and many are providing good education to their students,” he said. “It would be an error to let one bad example spoil the whole lot.” BPPVE analyst Pam Martin defended its review of Saratoga, saying that it was put through a qualitative assessment process when it applied in 1996. “The agency goes to the school and takes along reviewers who are qualified to look at the curriculum,” said Martin. BPPVE can provide some relief to students if a school closes by allowing their credits to transfer and providing tuition reimbursement for California residents. “But we can only contact those students who have made written complaints,” said Martin. Dee McAree is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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