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Humble beginnings: Students at the SLO College of Law push through the school's first year 

Attorney Stephen Wagner carries a stack of papers in one hand as the other wheels a boxy black double-wide briefcase into the room. He approaches the podium, sets the documents down, pushes the case against the wall, and pauses.

It’s after dark, and Wagner’s among a small subset of people who work long hours yet somehow manage to keep their shirts neatly worn and wrinkle free, their ties straight, and their pants creased.

click to enlarge LAW AND ORDER:  Stephen Wagner, a local attorney who teaches at the SLO College of Law, walks students through the nuances of criminal procedure. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • LAW AND ORDER: Stephen Wagner, a local attorney who teaches at the SLO College of Law, walks students through the nuances of criminal procedure.

He looks up, assessing the room, passes out a stack of papers, and makes his opening arguments.

“No one but me is old enough to remember the Six Million Dollar Man,” he jokes, “but I assure you, we will rebuild you.”

Class is in session.

Wagner—a trial attorney once tapped by the California District Attorney’s Association as a special prosecutor for complex vehicular manslaughter cases—is teaching a criminal procedure class at the San Luis Obispo College of Law. He is among a handful of working legal professionals who have been teaching at the college (including SLO County Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall, who teaches tort law), which is in its second semester after opening in 2015. The school is slowly planning an expansion that will eventually include a menu of free or low-cost legal services to the community at zero or low cost. 

It’s Monday, and the class of 20 students is reviewing a graded quiz that asked a similar set of questions to what they might eventually see on the bar exam.

Using the Socratic method, Wagner, who now practices civil law for the San Luis Obispo-based powerhouse firm Adamski Moroski Madden Cumberland & Green LLP, walks the students through each of the questions. He moves along the front of the classroom, constantly making eye contact and gesturing with his hands, employing techniques that can captivate the attention of both students and jurors. Students follow attentively, flipping through the two or three books splayed on the tables before them, scrutinizing notes from a legal pad, and reading over the case summary on their laptops.

Only one student got everything right, and the rest had spotty performance, but even those who got the wrong answers had thoughtful rationales behind their choices. 

The class is reviewing a case in which police served a search warrant—which didn’t include “night service” in its scope—at night. 

He pushes his students to study all “four corners of the document,” enough so that they would be able to defend both the actions of police and the actions of the suspects.

“Let’s try to save this warrant,” Wagner says.

Even though the warrant didn’t provide police the stated lawful ability to execute it at night, there were other factors that might mean the search was still lawful. Was there probable cause? Were there suspicious circumstances? What were they? Were the police lawfully positioned when they saw the suspicious circumstance? Where those circumstances seen in plain view or considered to be exigent?

“With search and seizure and officer-citizen situations, I want you to be very, very sensitive with the details,” he says.

With such rigorous review of the legal process, it becomes apparent why hiring a lawyer—rather then representing yourself—is a really good idea if you ever get in trouble.

Continuing to educate

Student Amy Kardel is completely immersed in the experience. Her laptop, books, and legal pads are leaning over the desk and overflowing onto an extra chair beside her. It’s all strategically arranged to be at her fingertips, like a kind of control panel for learning.

Other students have similar setups; some use both a laptop and a notebook or their phone.

For Kardel, her education is as much about learning and harnessing a new set of skills as it is about getting a law degree and being eligible to pass the bar exam.

“I joke that I go to law school for fun,” she says.

Kardel owns Clever Ducks, a SLO-based information technology support company, with her husband, Peter. She’s also raising four teenagers. She isn’t necessarily looking to become a lawyer but does want to enhance her business knowledge.

“This, for me, is an advanced business degree that really pulls together everything I’ve been doing,” she says. “It’s a triathlon of the brain.”

That knowledge can help inform her decisions in running a tech-based business in a rapidly changing world.

“I say that law is to business as physics is to engineering,” she says. “A good attorney can solve so many problems before they happen.”

Kardel is also embarking on lobbying efforts. Recently, she went to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the global IT industry association CompTIA, to lobby for the passage of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would require a warrant for law enforcement to ask Internet service and mobile communication providers to turn over emails, texts, and social media postings.

In an email Kardel wrote to New Times while flying back from D.C., she said that while researching the legislation, everything she’s been learning in law school started to click.

click to enlarge UNDERGROUND:  The San Luis Obispo College of Law is in the middle of its second semester after opening for business last summer. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • UNDERGROUND: The San Luis Obispo College of Law is in the middle of its second semester after opening for business last summer.

“The issues of criminal procedure, constitutional law, and evidence all crystallized for me and I felt like, ‘Hey, I HAVE learned enough to be dangerous in three years of law school.’ It was very rewarding,” she wrote. “The power in D.C. is amazing and our little law school has given me tools to have influence and represent small business owners.”

Kardel is currently in her third year, having transferred with about a dozen other students from the school’s previous incarnation, the University of San Luis Obispo. For a decade, it was run as a private, unaccredited law college by retired Kern County Superior Court Judge Charles Porter, who was ready to retire again.

At the same time, about two years ago, Monterey College of Law (MCL) Dean Mitch Winick was in San Luis Obispo visiting Cal Poly with his daughter—now a second year student there—when he heard that there was a small, unaccredited school here.

When he got back to Monterey, he looked it up and contacted Porter.

“The more I looked, the more I realized that it was a perfect community for an accredited law school,” Winick said.

He described it as a “win win win,” in that Porter (who still works with the school) found someone to continue a program; the MCL found new territory with existing demand to set up shop; and the students would be able to continue their education. 

New school

The San Luis Obispo College of Law (SLOCL) opened its doors in the summer of 2015, based in the basement level floor of a downtown office building. There, after the bank, law offices, and financial advisors on the levels above it close for the day, law students arrive four evenings a week for three-hour classes.

Currently there is one classroom for the school’s 30 students. Two other rooms are in the early stages of being converted into classrooms.

A majority of the students have full-time jobs or careers, many have families, and some are leaving another career behind to pursue law. A few students are following the more traditional track of attending law school soon after completing their undergraduate education, but they’re in the minority.

As a branch of the Monterey College of Law, the SLOCL is accredited and receives established knowledge and experience. Winick said that the SLOCL was set up just like its big sibling to the north—it has its own administrative staff and library (though both are small), the faculty comes from the local legal community, and all the required classes to obtain a law degree are offered there.

That foundation and the potential that comes with it is exciting to some members of the local legal community.

“They have basically brought existing, in-place staffing [and a] vetted variety of approaches,” said local defense attorney Jeff Stein.

Already, Stein’s noticed the added benefits of having a community-based law school that’s part of an established, accredited program. He said a student recently interned with his firm, and Stein said he could tell that the student was developing a strong fundamental legal understanding.

Community-centric

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, new law schools certified by the California Bar Association (CBA) began opening with a mission to provide legal services and training that would benefit the surrounding community.

That’s a fundamental difference between schools like the Monterey College of Law—one of 20 CBA-accredited law schools—and the bigger, more prestigious American Bar Association (ABA) accredited schools.

CBA schools are designed to educate people who come from the surrounding community (night and weekend classes), and, in many, cases return them to the same community. In the meantime, students become interns, clerks, researchers, mediators, and offer several services through clinics.

click to enlarge AT THE HELM:  Dean Mitch Winick, who oversees the Monterey College of Law and the SLO College of Law, talks to students at the SLO campus. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • AT THE HELM: Dean Mitch Winick, who oversees the Monterey College of Law and the SLO College of Law, talks to students at the SLO campus.

While ABA schools do that also, they generally attract students from elsewhere, and those students may return to elsewhere. Those students may also be among the growing number of people leaving school buried in student debt and might be looking for high-paying jobs over community benefit. CBA-accredited schools teach classes at night and on the weekends, making a law education accessible to people with jobs, families, or other commitments.

“Basically, the college was founded by local attorneys and judges … to make local lawyers and to better the legal profession within our community,” said Monterey County Superior Court Judge Sam Lavorato Jr. “That outlet and that vision back then has done just that. Our local community, like San Luis Obispo, is a rural area, and that rural area needs lawyers, too—good, ethical lawyers.”

Born and raised in Salinas, Lavorato graduated from the Monterey College of Law in 1992. He worked in both the Shasta County and Monterey County District Attorney’s office as a deputy district attorney and then went into private practice as a civil and defense attorney before becoming a Monterey County judge 10 years ago.

According to Winick, graduates make up about one third of the Monterey County Bar Association members. As a judge, Lavorato deals with several of his fellow alumni on a routine basis.

“Generally speaking, they make respectable lawyers,” he said.

In addition to—and as part of—the education, the school offers legal clinics and mediation services that are generally geared toward underserved needs, providing clinics to assist with family law, small claims, landlord/tenant, collections, and domestic violence. The Monterey College of Law also partners with the Young Women’s Club of America to work with survivors of domestic violence.

California State Sen. Bill Monning, who taught at the college for several years before joining the state Assembly in 2008, was the school’s director of the Mandell Gisnet Center for Conflict Management from 2004 to 2008.

Monning said that their partnerships provide both a learning experience for the students and relief to the courts, adding that there’s a very high settlement rate for many of the cases students assist with through the clinics. The services are very beneficial for people who can’t afford legal representation and they enrich the educational experience, he said.

“They draw some of the best local practicing attorneys, and they provide a very hands-on practical side to match the theoretical side,” Monning said. “I would say in some ways it offers a little bit more of a real word connect than some of the more theoretical colleges.”

For now, Winick said that clinics at the SLOCL are still in the works and will be rolled out later this year. In addition to offering clinics similar to those in Monterey, Winick said SLOCL is considering clinics that offer lawyer referral services, support to seniors, and tax assistance. Thus far, Winick said that there’s been good response from the community.

“We’re not trying to come in and replace something that’s already here,” he said. “We’re just trying to support the existing services.”

The SLOCL is planning on holding mediation training in the summer. The 30-hour training program will be open to both students and community members.

Settling in

Before finalizing plans to open shop in SLO, Winick met with several members of the legal community to assess the needs and demands.

“My question to all of them was the same thing—did they think that an accredited law school would be supported by the community?” he said.

The answer was an overwhelming “yes.”

“The relationship between the local law school and the local bench and bar has to be very strong,” Winick said.

When those relationships are good, local law schools thrive because students depend on their teachers to come from within the community, and eventually, those same students will depend on the community for employment, should they stay here.

And many of the students at the SLOCL expressed a desire to stay in the community after they finish school.

That includes students like Ben Jacobson, who pipes up after student Amy Kardel jokes about going to law school for fun.

“I’m not doing this for fun,” he says. “I’d rather be at home with my family.” 

click to enlarge STUDIOUSLY:  Ben Jacobson reviews course materials for a class on criminal procedure at the SLO College of Law, which opened its doors last summer. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • STUDIOUSLY: Ben Jacobson reviews course materials for a class on criminal procedure at the SLO College of Law, which opened its doors last summer.

A native of Arroyo Grande, Jacobson, who has a five-month-old son, now finds himself studying law after what he describes as a “crazy life.”

When he was in high school, Jacobson ended up on the horrible slippery slope that has become an epidemic for youth in this area. What started as recreational use of pharmaceutical opioids like oxycodone became habitual use of black tar heroin. In turn, to pay for his habit, he started selling drugs and committing crimes.

During that period, he overdosed three times.

Through his wild ride, Jacobson developed a unique experience with the law and the criminal justice system.

“I’ve got a lot of background in law with myself getting in trouble a lot,” he says.

Eventually Jacobson kicked heroin—which required an excruciating detoxification process that lasted for 58 sleepless days. He got his criminal record expunged and received a pardon from the governor.

Now, Jacobson is a crisis evaluator for SLO County Mental Health Services. Before that, he ran a men’s sober living house, for which his work was profiled in the September 2014 issue of the local publication Journal PLUS

“I just try to help everyone that I can,” he says.

That’s the sentiment that’s driving him through law school. Currently, it has him fighting the constant uphill battle of helping people with mental health issues find adequate treatment. He says that along the way he encounters people with a dual diagnosis, where they suffer from both mental illness and alcohol or drug dependency.

As an attorney, he wants to continue that work in a different capacity. He isn’t sure where he’ll go to work when he finishes law school, but he’d like to stay here if possible. He expressed interest in both working for the SLO County District Attorney’s Office or as a defense attorney. Eventually, he wants to be a trial attorney and open his own practice.

“I want to vouch for the drug addicts,” he says. “Instead of going to prison, they need to get rehabilitated. In prison, the only thing they learn is how to be better at crime.”

Jacobson originally planned on moving to San Diego to attend the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. He didn’t necessarily want to move, especially after he and his wife had a baby. Then, an attorney friend told him about the local school. Turns out, Jacobson and several of his fellow students were just the kind of people that the new SLO College of Law was hoping to attract.

“We’re far more interested in their life experience and their maturity and their ability to study than we are in what their undergrad is,” Winick said. “What we’re really interested in is why they’re interested in coming to law school.” 

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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