The California Desert Trial Academy College of Law will focus on preparing students for trial advocacy and fill a need for a local law school, said criminal defense attorney John Patrick Dolan, president and chief executive officer of the venture.
“I’ve been thinking about this for years,” he said. “How come there’s not a school where people can go if they want to become trial lawyers? This is a great opportunity.”
Indio, a desert community of about 76,000 people, is located 125 miles east of Los Angeles and 26 miles east of Palm Springs. The closest law school is California Southern Law School in Riverside, Calif., 70 miles away.
Dolan said the school is intended primarily to serve local residents. The school hopes to enroll 25 to 40 students next year, and organizers were encouraged by an open house on Sept. 21 that drew about 50 prospective students.
The school will cater primarily to students who work. It will offer night classes during the week and Saturday sessions focused on practical skills, such as negotiation, writing and presenting audio and visual materials to a jury.
Dolan plans to secure accreditation from the California State Bar — and possibly from the American Bar Association down the line. Because the school is not yet accredited, students will be required to sit for the California’s First-Year Law Student Exam, also known as the Baby Bar.
Initially, all classes will be taught by Dolan; Sue Steding, a former Riverside County prosecutor; and Julie Bornstein, an attorney who has served in the California Assembly and held numerous positions in state government.
Annual tuition for the four-year program will be $12,000, including books for the first class, Dolan said.
“We’re able to keep the tuition low because myself and the other faculty are getting paid little or nothing,” Dolan said. “We don’t have huge overhead expenses.”
Initially, the school will operate out of a local courthouse, but administrators hope to expand into a downtown Indio building and construct a trial, appellate and federal courtroom where students can practice their advocacy skills. The school initially will operate as a for-profit venture in order to take advantage of certain state and federal incentives, but will probably switch to non-profit status in the future, Dolan said.
He doesn’t expect the difficult job market for young attorneys to affect the new school’s graduates.
“We don’t anticipate that our graduates will be getting jobs at the big law firms,” he said. “We see them becoming DAs, public defenders or starting their own practice. It’s my understanding that the biggest problems in the marketplace right now is that the big firms aren’t hiring as much and they’re laying people off.”
Starting a law school in this economic climate may still be an uphill climb. One new law school opened this fall — the Belmont University College of Law in Nashville — but two other law schools that were slated to have opened this year have been delayed. Critics have questioned the need for new law schools when job placement nationwide has lagged and applications to ABA-accredited law schools fell by 10% last year.
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.