Attending a Non-ABA School

Law School Expert Blog

Last night we had a really informative Blog Talk Radio show about whether law school is worth the financial sacrifice. I really want to thank the four attorneys who participated and everyone who sent in questions. If you missed it, you can hear the 45-minute discussion by clicking this Blog Talk Radio – Ann Levine link or by downloading it at iTunes (BTR-Ann Levine).

I often get questions from people wondering whether they should attend law schools that are state bar accredited as opposed to ABA accredited. My expertise is in ABA law schools, but I have many friends who are attorneys who graduated from California State Bar schools. My very good friend Lynn Goebel agreed to be interviewed for the blog in order to provide insights for those contemplating attending non-ABA schools.

  1. What school did you attend for law school? Why did you choose that school?

I attended the Santa Barbara College of Law.  I wanted to stay locally in Santa Barbara and I thought its course schedule (three nights a week) would allow me to continue to work during the day and attend classes at night.

  1. Did you have any qualms about attending a non-ABA school? What were your concerns, if any? Did you see any benefits?

I’m a California native and I have no visions of leaving this state.  I do have an expectancy interest in a farm in Indiana, but I don’t see myself picking up and moving out there to be a country lawyer.  It worried me very little to attend a non-ABA school.  Because I’ve been in practice for a number of years now, I believe I may be eligible to sit for other states’ Bar Exams, but I really don’t see that kind of torture in my future.

3.     What did law school cost?

I believe I paid $225 per unit when I attended (September 1997 through December 2000).  And I had the opportunity to pay per quarter which worked out well for me, budget-wise.  I bought a few books used from former students and A LOT of people were willing to share their study aids (like those flashcards in the yellow boxes whose name escapes me….).  So maybe the total tuition was about $20,000 for the whole experience?  Plus, throw in the cost of books.  I was very fortunate to be a BARBRI representative so I received all of their great study aids for free.

4.     How do you think your law school experience was different from that of someone attending an ABA school?

I was perhaps less stressed?  Or maybe I’m just in denial about my level of stress.  It’s a rather tight-knit bunch that graduates each year because there’s only about 25-35 students in each graduating class.  Many of the SBCL attendees remain in Santa  Barbara to practice law.  It’s nice to see that guy that sat next to you in Contracts doing so well or that gal that I always thought was far too busy reading magazines in the back row and not paying attention now as a named and successful partner at a local firm.

5.     Did you work while in school, and –if so – how did that factor in to your decision to attend your school? How did it impact your law school experience?

I worked full-time at a local accident reconstruction firm during the entire time I was in law school.  I was likely sleep-deprived throughout the whole experience.  During my last year when I had to do an externship to complete my degree, every Thursday I’d get up at 4 a.m., work at my job from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., go to my externship from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., get a bite to eat and then go to class from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.  I slept rather well on Thursday nights.  However, I’d do it all again the same way.  I emerged a successful graduate without any law school debt.  Without that financial pressure, it’s a lot easier to smile each day.

6.     How would you describe the faculty at the law school and how would you characterize student/faculty interactions?

The faculty at the school is comprised of local lawyers and judges.  They were very approachable and one of them later hired me as a new associate.  I’d say that we interacted very well.

7.    What were your career goals when you entered law school? Did they prove idealistic or reasonable/attainable?

I just wanted to emerge with a J.D. and a continued willingness to help people with their legal troubles.  So, I suppose my goals were both:  somewhat idealistic, but most definitely attainable.

8.    Tell us about your career path as an attorney. How did you find each job and how did it lead to future opportunities?

My first job as an attorney was via a friendship I’d maintained with one of the school’s instructors, post-graduation.  She said her firm was looking to hire an associate, I sent her my resume, she and the managing partner called me moments later…and I found myself giving two weeks’ notice at my then-job and diving headfirst into the practice of family law.  The relationships I built at that firm then paved the way for my future employers.

9.   You now have your own law practice. What is that like?

Well, other than the fact that my boss is a real jerk, I’m having a great time.  I do need to be a bit more disciplined on maintaining a regular work schedule.  But, I’ve really enjoyed not having to set the alarm every day.  One of the downsides, though, is not having law partners to bounce ideas off of.  But I have a number of wonderful friends that practice family law who seem to readily want to help me out.  And they’re so much smarter than me! That’s invaluable.

10.  In your case, did attending law school make sense (financially)?

Most definitely.  When I was pondering whether or not to attend law school, I saw that I was going to “top out” administratively at my job so it made financial sense to add some education and marketability to my skill set in order to be able to continue to increase my earning ability.  So, now I’ve got a nice degree to stick on my ego wall at the office and I get to do what I went to law school to do: help people with their legal troubles.  Plus, my brother-in-law (whom I adore) says it’s good that I’m a lawyer so I can be of some use to him.  He’s all about usefulness.  He said I could either be a mechanic or a lawyer because both professions would be of assistance to him.  I laughed, told him I wouldn’t look good in coveralls, and went to law school.  I can change the oil in my car.  He can change his own damn oil.

11.  Anything else you think people should know about choosing a non-ABA school?

Do it!  Make sure you remain a grounded, well-rounded person.  Be open to every opportunity that presents itself and take advantage of those opportunities for which you have the time and, more importantly, the interest.  Years later, it will matter very little to anyone which law school you attended; it will matter more the kind of person you are.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lynn E. Goebel came to Santa Barbara in 1990 to attend the University of California, Santa Barbara, studying Law & Society with a Criminal Justice Emphasis.  She earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University in 1994. After graduation, Ms. Goebel worked in the product liability field while attending the Santa Barbara College of Law.  She earned her J.D. in 2001 and was admitted to practice in California that same year. Ms. Goebel has practiced family law in Santa Barbara since 2001.    She presently serves as the President of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association, having previously served as its Secretary, Treasurer, and Editor-in-Chief of the Santa Barbara Lawyer magazine.  Her other commitments include serving the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County as its President in 2008-2009 and currently as board member. She has served the community as the co-race director for the Law Day Running Races, a local footrace to benefit the Legal Aid Foundation.  She is also a board member of the Rental Housing Mediation Task Force (a Santa Barbara City Advisory Group). Recently honored as one of the “Top Young Lawyers in Southern California,” Ms. Goebel’s practice emphasizes both family law litigation and mediation. A former member of the William L. Gordon Inns of Court and Beverly Hills Bar Association, Ms. Goebel is currently a member of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association, Santa Barbara Women Lawyers, Santa Barbara Barristers, and the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

20 Responses

  1. Great interview! Just goes to show that students can be successful graduating from a lesser-known program when they know what they want to get out of the experience and have realistic expectations.

    1. Johnny Cochran attended a non-ABA accredited law school, but when asked how he felt about not attending a non ABA non Ivy League School he said: (paraphrase) well I did not attend Harvard, Yale or Stanford, but I have some all those students working at my law firm for me.

    2. An attorney that went to a non-ABA law school in my state advertises that he owns the largest personal injury firm in the state, has a $50 million war chest, and has recovered over 1 billion for clients. He employs a lot of ABA and non-ABA graduates as attorneys within his firm. He made a brand for himself through his advertising, and it definitely caught the eyes of most, because he’s pretty much famous within the state.

      I’ve listened to him on podcasts, and looked into his background. I find his journey pretty fascinating, and believe he’s a brilliant business man.

  2. Good insight as to having direction and a feeling of purpose. Its not always about the top school or program, but about your intentions, goals and reasons behind wanting to attend.

  3. Great article, and thank you for taking the time to write on such an important issue. I have spoken to several educators on the attendance of an ABA school vs. California State Examiners (CSE) law school and have conflicting responses. However after reading your article it just makes sense to graduate from a Non ABA school.

  4. Hello, and definitely a big thank you. Most of us who are not fortunate to attend those big-shot Law Schools, will always wonder whether our education will mean something in the job market out there. I feel that in the end, the hard work you put behind this will matter more than the hard dollars you spend on a big school.

  5. This was very helpful and encouraging. I just cannot see justifying the cost of attending a traditional ABA school that takes the same exam. Neither gives a guarantee of passing, it is putting in the work.

  6. Though I went to a law school that hovers around a #20 ranking I can assure everyone I was far from overly impressed with the school at the time, or for that matter since.

    Unless you have money to throw away going to an unaccredited law school is a mistake or waste of time. It has become difficult enough to get a decent job when graduating a quality school. Going to an unaccredited school basically put you from the number 202 ranked law school. In front of you are the 150 actual ranked school and about 50 unranked though accredited schools.

    There is a shortage of jobs in the legal market because of the enormous number of law school grads every year. The grads of the first 14 or 15 schools who did well have the easiest time. Then comes kids who did really well at the schools from around #15 to maybe 35 or so. Then it flips back to kids from the T-14 or so who only did ok. Then the same with schools 15-35. And so it goes for a while.

    As you get farther & farther down the ranked 150, jobs get tougher & tougher. Even if you’re law review at Hamline don’t expect a bunch of offers. If you’re “just” top quarter at a Hamline you had better know someone. Then before you get to non accredited schools there are about 50 unranked law schools of low repute, some pouring out 250+ JD’s every year. These people find it very, very, very difficult to find law jobs.

    I cannot recommend going to some non accredited school. Unless you are just doing it for fun or have a job lined up and just need a degree you are wasting your money. As far as hanging out a shingle, keep in mind you’d be competing vs all the aforemtioned thousands of grads from lousy accredited schools who can’t find jobs.

    And the above is w/o consideration on passing the bar exam. If statistics indicate bar passage rates are below 50% going to a non accredited school sounds like poor preparation for practicing law. If some school has a ridiculously low bar passage rate do not waste three (or more) years of your life. (Btw, it’s pretty easy getting in all the unranked law schools, as well as many of the 100-150 ranked schools. I understand costs are high, but you are better off with $200k in loans and doing well at a good school than spending $50k at a non accredited law school)

    1. I disagree completely with your statement. I started at an ABA school and it was the most miserable academic experience of my life (I have 4 degrees so I consider myself academia-proficient). The school did not care about their 1Ls, they just threw them against the wall to see who stuck. No offer of supplemental help and I had crazy professors that took pleasure from playing hide the ball, yelling and throwing objects at students.

      Not being able to finish my ABA program due to unforeseen medical issues, I went another route and into an industry where many of my former ABA classmates also work. I got another degree in the process and make more than twice than a starting associate at a blue chip firm.

      20 years after my ABA experience, I attended a non-ABA, CA accredited school.

      I have a standing offer from one of my old ABA-school friends for a job and my company (a Fortune 500 firm) contacts started discussing my legal career path when I was in my second year at a non-ABA, CA-accredited school. I’m currently studying for the CA Bar.

      I’m still paying off the ABA loans and went to a non-ABA school with no incurred debt at the end. At the non-ABA, I felt the staff and faculty actually cared about you and your learning progress, and I had a lot of extra help from local tutors and professors.

      So sure, if you’re 24 and want a high powered career as an attorney for some name firm and want to dig a financial hole for yourself that will follow you for the next 20-25 years then great. Follow Warspite’s advice.

      For those of us non-traditional students that made smart networking connections along the way in our careers and have multiple degrees, it isn’t very smart to go into $140K in debt when you are in your 40s.

      I have the viewpoint of attending both an ABA and a non-ABA school, and I will take the non-ABA route any day over the misery, cold and hardheartedness experience of an ABA school.

      My journey is different than many, but be realistic and honest with yourself and your goals. My goals are so far coming true.

  7. First and foremost, I am not an attorney. However, having been successful in business and having attended law school in the past, I humbly offer some slight words of wisdom. In reality, if your goal is to get a relatively high paying job in a large law firm then you pretty much are resigned to, and have little choice but to attend an ABA law school. However, if your goal is to immediately go into private solo practice, or join an existing family law firm, then it really does not matter whether you attended an ABA or a non-ABA law school.

    In law, as in most disciplines, your first job will be entirely based upon where you went to law school. After a few years however, your personal commodity for employment will rise or fall based upon your own labor and efforts, communication skills, integrity, good instincts, overall personality, with the ability to adapt to economic obstacles; and most importantly confidence in yourself. Over time your degree and honors will fade away to some extent, but your ability to faithfully represent your client’s needs with the expertise, integrity and precision will never fade and will always remain your most important asset. This cannot be gained from any law school.

    Some of the best lawyers I have ever met attended below average law schools, while some of the worst I have ever met have attended the finest.

    It doesn’t hurt of course to attend a fine ABA law school, and I would never suggest against it; all I am trying to point out is if you have a more entrepreneurial spirit, while maintaining strong ethical principles, then a non-ABA school, although not ideal for everyone, will allow you the opportunity to prove yourself as an capable attorney, provided that the motivation inside you is there.

  8. I will be attending California School of Law and I will be 56 years old when starting. I have no intention of practicing as a Lawyer. A non ABA school makes a perfect option for myself. Fiscally and Employment concerns were deciding factors, but having a Juris Doctorate Degree when I run for political office can not hurt.

  9. I loved the discussion from Ms. Goeble. I am 42 this year and decided that it was time to go to Law School as it is what I’ve wanted to do for years but life got in the way or finishing sooner. I will be attending a non-ABA school and the insights she provided have inspired me to move forward. The comments provided by Mr. Kantor are realistic and wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. I truly have struggled with deciding to attend non ABA vs. ABA accredited law school(s). But, it truly does not matter which law school you attend….how you respond, act, speak, represent yourself and your client(s) ultimately will define you as an attorney. This year, I will be taking the June 11th LSAT. Studying for the LSAT has been an on and off ongoing process for me because I have let it discourage me….but I want to conquer the LSAT for myself and not for anyone else…and I figure if there are some non ABA schools that require the LSAT, I am going to conquer it so that I can open doors for myself and have options for which schools to attend. Thank you for this article…because it put a lot of things into perspective for me.

  10. People forget to make this very profound correlation: The reason Bar passage rates are low from graduates of non ABA approved schools, is because the standards for entering a non ABA approved school are ALSO low. It has nothing to do with the quality of education obtained at these schools. I know plenty of dumb lawyers who graduated from ABA approved schools unfortunately. I have seen them in court and wondered how they passed the bar at all. Nevertheless, they passed the country’s hardest bar exam! Being accepted to an ABA approved law school does not guarantee that you will be an effective or successful attorney. IF a committed, determined, and intelligent person attends a non ABA approved school, they can definitely become a successful attorney. I think it’s necessary that folks do their research before leaving comments. Statistics are available to inform the public about where graduates are being employed after graduating non ABA approved schools. I did my own research for myself and I am considering a non ABA approved school. I am a single mom and disabled veteran, I don’t have the means to pay back student loan debt in an amount equal to the price of my home in Georgia. Thank God non ABA law schools have the option of an online JD degree, especially with COVID cases rising. I am not ready to be in a classroom with the possibility of infected people. ABA approved schools do not allow that flexibility whatsoever. I think having the California State Bar approval is enough. Take Trinity Law School for example. NUMEROUS students graduating from their non ABA approved law school have their own private practices and the neighboring counties in Santa Ana where they are located have hired their graduates. If the end result is being able to pass the bar, that should be sufficient enough to practice law in California. The state of California agrees with that premise, which is why there are so many non ABA approved law schools in that state. An ambitious and determined student is just that, no matter where he or she completes their J.D.

  11. Hi, I am hoping to do my J.D. Degree soon at a Non-ABA Law School and I love it because I will be able to become a College Professor, if, for any reason, I do not pass my BAR exam or if, I don’t get to finish my J.D. Degree. Thank you, so much.

  12. I am applying to Concord Law School as we speak at the young age of 44. Life variables prevented me from attending law school of any kind previously. I’m now in a position where I’ve attained many life goals younger generations strive for: kids headed to college and HS, I have a house and acreage in the socal mountains close to the ocean with fruit trees maturing, car paid off. I’ve incorporated my own massage and personal training business and will work it part time during law school. Setting myself up to have a successful law school experience took years to attain. I spent years in stressful management jobs working 80+ hours per week, and sacrificed alot just to situate myself for my needs. I’ve done hours of research deciding the aba/non-aba route. Going the non ABA route makes so much sense for my personal needs. I stopped trying to impress people a long time ago. Having vast life experience in a variety of fields taught me that nothing can place a limit on a person’s drive and tenacity, especially if they’re leading with a sound set of visions, missions, and values. Attaining a decent job in many career fields has gotten extremely difficult nowadays, not just in the legal profession. If you lead with value and are driven, everything will eventually take care of itself. Treat people like you expect to be treated and a door will always be open, even if it takes a little time. Thanks for this article.

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