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There are no lecture halls or competitive 23-year-olds at East Bay Law School in Oakland, Calif. Applicants don’t take the LSAT to get in. In fact, they’re not even required to graduate from college first. The school is one of 15 unaccredited law schools registered with the California State Bar Association that aim to provide older, nontraditional students access to a legal education they couldn’t get elsewhere. The school’s dean readily agrees that her school is not for everyone. “A person who is 20 should go to a different law school,” Dean Doris Peeler-Brown says. “Their chances of success of passing the bar are better at a place with greater resources.” That’s not to say EBLS doesn’t have appeal. At $7,000 a year for four years, rather than the traditional three years, the tuition is less than half the total cost of Boalt Hall School of Law and about a quarter that of Stanford Law School. And just like those schools, students are eligible to take the California State Bar exam upon graduating. The courses taught are nearly identical to the ones offered by ABA-accredited schools, including legal writing, contracts, torts, civil procedure, criminal law, labor and employment law and taxation. And EBLS students have full access to Boalt Hall’s law library. Add to that the student-to-faculty ratio is an impressive 5-to-1. “Class discussion is not just two people performing for 100 others, but an intimate, interconnected affair,” says Michael Schmier, an EBLS volunteer professor. “The students are motivated, energetic and interested; they spend all day at work and still find the energy and time to put into law,” adds Schmier, a solo practitioner in Emeryville. “I believe they will be able to pass the bar and — will grow into what needs are placed in front of them and fill a hole in our community.” But statistics show an uphill climb for the four women and 20 men enrolled at EBLS, who are required to take the “Baby bar” exam halfway through their schooling. According to the State Bar, only 11 percent of students who attended unaccredited schools passed the February bar exam. In contrast, 46 percent of ABA-accredited school graduates passed. “Most faculty and administration at ABA-accredited schools believe ABA schools provide a superior education,” says Jerome Braun, the State Bar’s senior executive of admissions and certifications. Time will tell for the EBLS students. If the students stay on track, seven will graduate in 2007 and be eligible to tackle the bar exam. One of those students is Linda Baptiste-Ahmed, who had dreamed of going to law school years ago, but instead decided to get a Ph.D. in social work. She hopes to return to EBLS as a professor after graduation. She speaks highly of the professors there, including a tough one whom she’d rather not name. “He taught me that if I didn’t have the guts in class, I would not have the guts in the courtroom,” she said. The current student body, which includes teachers, social workers, bus drivers and college professors, balances night classes three times a week with their families and full-time jobs. The students, ages 27 to 60, come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying dreams. Some want to be lawyers and judges. Others are looking to do community service work. Some are looking to earn extra money after they retire from full-time jobs. And one student, a minister, wants to help his parishioners with their legal troubles. The school itself is a modest place. It’s on the second floor of an unassuming building on Oakland’s Grand Avenue. A small plaque announces the school to passers-by who might otherwise not give it a second glance. It’s cozy, too, with three large classrooms, a conference room, a large central room with couches, two lounges and a few offices. Peeler-Brown regards her students as family. Each student and professor has a labeled cubby, and there’s always a snack to be found in the student lounge. “She’s a great role model, someone who has really inspired a whole lot of people,” Baptiste-Ahmed says. “If it wasn’t for her, I think a lot of us wouldn’t be here.” Peeler-Brown, 66, says she never expected to be there, either. She worked as a legal secretary, a professor, a printer and an analyst for the city of Oakland before she became the dean of the now-defunct Oakland School of Law, where she received her J.D. at the age of 59. When the board of directors of that school shocked everyone, including Peeler-Brown, by closing the school after 20 years, the dean says she felt personally responsible. “I felt like I had recruited students under false pretenses,” she says. So, in January 2004, less than a year after the Oakland School of Law shuttered, she opened the doors to the nonprofit East Bay Law School. “It was beautiful,” Peeler-Brown says. “Sort of like a symphony where everyone comes in with their own instrument.” Peeler-Brown put up her life savings for the startup costs. The money from tuition is barely covering the school’s bills. But in three years the school may be eligible for federal funding, which would allow the dean to pay her professors, who currently work for free, and maybe even herself. She lives off a small pension. Not that she’s complaining. “It’s the best thing I could be doing with my time,” she says, smiling. Adva Saldinger is an intern at The Recorder.

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