No-frills law school has legacy of success

By MIKE KATAOKA / The Press-Enterprise

(Excerpts from article published January 31, 2005)

RIVERSIDE - California Southern Law School will never be confused with UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall.  It's more nuts and bolts.

Founded in 1971, the Riverside night school offers a no-frills legal education to prepare students -- most with day jobs and families -- to pass the state bar examination and become lawyers.

At less than $6,000 for an academic year, it's a cheaper alternative to traditional law schools. Boalt Hall's annual tuition approaches $20,000 and private schools such as Stanford and Duke charge more than $30,000 a year.

Its 500-plus graduates include five Superior Court judges, the district attorney of San Bernardino County and other prominent Inland lawyers.

The school opened as Citrus Belt Law School and in 1990, at the urging of students seeking a more prestigious name, became California Southern Law School.

San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael A. Ramos is a 1988 graduate. "I wouldn't be sitting here today if it weren't for Dean Rich and Citrus Belt Law School," Ramos said. "He allowed me to fulfill my dream."

Its 135 students attend classes three nights a week for four years. The school has transformed insurance agents, bankers, salesmen and secretaries into practicing lawyers.

Barbara Beck, who took classes when she was stationed at March Air Force Base as a medic, was in the first graduating class. She went on to become a deputy public defender in Riverside and Santa Maria and retired last year as a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge.

Graduates Arthur Harrison, a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge, and Mary Ellen Daniels, past president of the Riverside County Bar Association, both were courtroom bailiffs before they became lawyers.

Ramos was in his mid-30s and a probation officer for San Bernardino County when he decided to become a lawyer. Night classes allowed him to keep his job and pursue his law degree at an affordable price, he said.

As for his faculty, Rich said his school's strength is instruction from working lawyers and judges.

"When your professors are practicing attorneys, " Ramos said, "not only are you learning from the book, they tell you what's going on in the court today."

Bill Mitchell, who prosecuted two death-penalty trials last year in Riverside County Superior Court, teaches trial practice.

Jim D. Bishop, a Riverside County Superior Court commissioner, has the school's longest tenure, having taught contracts since 1976.

And Virginia Blumenthal, one of the region's top criminal defense lawyers, is both a graduate and former faculty member.

"I like it because it epitomizes America," said Richard Bentley, a Riverside County prosecutor who has been teaching at Rich's school since 1988.

"This is a country where people get a second chance at a new career. I like to see that spirit there," he said.

More than 300 California Southern graduates have passed the state bar examination to become lawyers.

About 40 percent pass on the first try, which Rich considers an excellent showing among comparable law schools.