Written by David Castellon
Efforts in the late 1960s to develop a new law school in the Central Valley almost didn’t happen.
The idea came from then-Fresno County Municipal Court Judge Dan Eymann, who believed that the growth of people and businesses in and around Fresno County merited the development of a law school, as the nearest one was more than 100 miles away, between Stockton and Sacramento.
So he held a gathering at his home for lawyers and judges in the Valley to pitch his idea and seek help developing and funding a law school.
While that first gathering was well attended, a second at Eymann’s home wasn’t, as only two people showed up, local attorneys Oliver Wanger — who later went on to become a U.S. District Court judge — and John Loomis,
But they were enough, as the three began working to create what would become the San Joaquin College of Law, which they incorporated in November 1969 and began teaching its first class of law students the following year, said Janice Pearson, the school’s dean for nearly the past 34 years, about the school’s upcoming 50th anniversary.
She noted that the three men agreed to each put in $200 to fund the development or SJCL, “but only one actually put in $200, though.“
Yet somehow they managed to get their law school started, thanks to tuition paid by its first class of students, who were instructed in classrooms at Fresno Pacific University, Pearson said.
Despite a shaky start, the law school thrived, drawing students mostly from the Valley.
“People weren’t as mobile as they are now. It was very difficult for people to just pick up and move to go to law school. Most people who went to law school even now, are working adults who have jobs and have families. It would be very difficult for them just to say, ‘I’m going to law school now.’”
The other advantage of a local law school was the cost, Pearson said, noting that “If it was more than $50 a unit, I would be surprised.”
That would have come out to about $4,000 for a law degree back in the early 1970s.
Today, that four-year degree costs about $78,000 in tuition — though financial aid can help reduce the out-of-pocket costs.
But even at the full cost, that’s cheap compared to other law schools.
In its latest survey of 188 law schools across the country, U.S. News and World Report found that in the 2018-19 academic year, the average tuition for just one year at a private law school was $49,095, $27,591 for students attending public law schools in their own states and $40,725 for students attending law schools outside their home states.
Now, pretty much anybody can go to law school, and that has had a significant effect on who can become a lawyer in the Central Valley, Pearson said.
As the student body grew, soon the fledgling law school relocated to part of a small office building at East Shields Avenue and North First Street, expanding quickly to occupy the entire building and then purchasing the building next door.
It wasn’t until 1997 that SJCL moved to its current home, the original Clovis High School building in downtown Clovis.
The lease agreement with the city has SJCL paying just $1 a year rent over 55 years, but the law school has paid $2.4 million to repair and renovate the deteriorating, 32,000-square-foot building. That work included building a mock courtroom and creating a second floor in what had been the school auditorium.
While the law school is small by most any standard, it has a big reputation in the Valley’s legal community.
In fact, Pearson said, the early graduates had difficulties finding jobs at law firms here because potential employers didn’t know the quality of lawyers the new law school produced.
But many started their own practices or went the public-sector route, becoming prosecutors and public defenders, because those agencies always need help, Pearson noted.
Those new lawyers quickly proved themselves in the real world, and employers took notice.
“Once you have your degree and a couple of years pass, if you’re doing a good job, that’s all they care about,” Pearson said.
“Talent is talent, and the fundamental education in law school is the same everywhere. We have been very fortunate to have very skilled practitioners in the local community to teach classes,” she said, adding that about half of the instructors at her school are working lawyers teaching part time, sharing their current, practical experience with their students.
“I loved not only the full-time professors but also the adjunct professors that actually were working as attorneys during the day and teaching at night,” said Devon McTeer, a 2003 graduate who now is a partner in Fresno firm WTJ Law and teaches a pre-trial civil litigation class.
She said being a working lawyer helps her teach better, as “having experience on a daily basis gives me credibility with [students],” and she can share a lot of practical insights that they wouldn’t find in textbooks.
“If you want to be in the trenches and be in the courtroom, I found out from the classes I’ve taken, and it was an awesome experience, overall,” added Brian Alvarez, a 1995 graduate who now is a Fresno County Superior Court judge.
Over its nearly five decades, SJCL has graduated more than 1,600 people, about 80 percent of whom have stayed in the Valley and comprise about a third of the working lawyers in Fresno County alone, Pearson said.
Part of the reason so many stay here are the same reasons they enrolled in a law school close to home.
“I was a single mother and had a young son at the time,” sharing custody with the boy’s father, who lives in Fresno, said Sherry Flynn, a 2005 graduate who went on to become a successful patent attorney.
She added that her plan after graduating was to practice law locally.
“And students of SJCL have just gone on to do such incredible, remarkable things, It just blows my mind,” said Pearson, who has been interviewing former students and posting one story a day on each over 365 days until the 50th anniversary.
“There is a woman in Texas who is a grad who is now the chief ethics and compliance officer for the Dallas Mavericks. There is a gentleman also in Texas who is assistant general counsel and vice president of Celanese [Corporation], which is a Fortune 500 company,” she said.
“Diana Dooley, who was the [California] secretary of Health and Human Services until recently, is a grad and was responsible for designing the Affordable Care Act in California. And that’s just a drop in the bucket. There’s someone on the general counsel here for the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools. Someone is the general counsel for literally an international technology company, with offices all over the world. And it just goes on.”
Fresno County District Attorney, Lisa A. Smittcamp is a graduate, and Alvarez added that eight of Fresno County’s superior court judges are SJCL graduates.
“A woman who sat in my general torts class and hardly ever said a word is now general counsel for Delta Dental of California,” Pearson added. “There is obviously so much talent here that they just need a place to get it started.”