Two recent CalSouthern graduates discuss their online law school experience—and what it took to pass the California bar exam
Ask any attorney to describe the moment they first learned that they had passed the bar exam and, chances are, you'll be in for a good story. That moment is so portentous and stress-filled—there's so much at stake, so much effort expended that will either pay off big-time or be rendered all for naught in an instant—that the emotions remain as vivid in memory decades later as they were on that day.
The CalSouthern School of Law is happy to report that a number of recent graduates now have their own joyous stories to tell. In fact, 60 percent of the school's first-time takers of the February 2013 administration of the California Bar Exam passed. To put this into context, the state-wide pass rate for first timers was just 41 percent. This is a fantastic result and the entire CalSouthern community congratulates our bar passers.
We recently caught up with two of the graduates, Jeff Miller and Paul Toepel, Jr., to learn about their future plans, their keys to law school and bar exam success and, of course, to hear about how they first received the good news.
California Southern University: Going back a few years, why did you originally decide to pursue your law degree?
Jeff Miller: I was working for—and still work for—a healthcare company called WellPoint. I worked in the legal department, doing mostly general corporate law. I supported the marketing and advertising teams, did some intellectual property work (I was the company's self-taught trademark expert) and also worked with social media, as well as web and mobile development.
As I advanced in my paralegal career, I often found myself doing attorney-level work. And, although the company treated me extremely well, they had simply maxed out the salary range they could offer me because I was not an attorney. So, I was underpaid for the level of work I was doing; making a higher salary was definitely a motivating factor for me.
Then, while on vacation back east, I had a conversation with a good family friend who is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He told me that I would eventually get bored or frustrated as a paralegal. That was the push I needed.
Paul Toepel: When I was an undergraduate, I befriended a couple of attorneys. I was really impressed with them: they were extremely intelligent and seemed to enjoy their work. That was an early influence. And the more I came to know about legal work, the more I realized that it, specifically litigation, was suited to my personality.
CalSouthern: Why did you choose CalSouthern?
Miller: From the start, I knew that going to school online was my only option, given my busy schedule at work and my family obligations. My research led me to CalSouthern. I was swayed by favorable student reviews that I read online. Also, I am from Southern California and I found it reassuring that the university had a local presence.
Toepel: My road to CalSouthern was a long one. I began my studies at a traditional law school in Los Angeles, where I had a bad experience in my second year. A registration error placed me in an upper-level course for which I hadn't yet taken four of the five prerequisites. I petitioned to withdraw, but the administration wouldn't allow it. I knew that failing that class was inevitable. Sure enough, I fell behind and couldn't catch up. Eventually, I became depressed and ultimately dropped out.
Years later, determined to finish what I had started, I enrolled in what was essentially a correspondence school. I was sent my books and a simple list of reading assignments. That was it. With virtually no structure or support, again I fell behind and ultimately dropped out of the program.
Despite these two bad experiences—and some significant debt from my undergraduate studies—I never lost the dream to return to school. Finally, I found CalSouthern. For me, it was the best of both worlds. It had the quality, structure and support I needed, and it also offered the affordability and flexibility I required. It struck the perfect balance between my first two experiences that did not work out.
CalSouthern: What do you tell friends and colleagues who are unfamiliar with the study of law online?
Miller: Sometimes other attorneys will give me a funny look when I mention I studied online. In law, where you went to school is who you are, in a way. But when I explain to them what the learning methodology is like and specifically, what my weekly workload was like, their response is inevitably something along the lines of, “My god, I never could have done that!”
Toepel: I explain to them how in traditional law school, you are spoon-fed. There's a very structured class schedule and a set of tasks you have to do every day to keep the professor happy and so you don't embarrass yourself in front of the class. Online, it's solely up to you. Sure you have a professional support team behind you, but when it comes down to it, it's all on you to keep up with your assignments. Plus, at CalSouthern, there's no federal financial aid. It's your own money that's at stake, not some student loan that you won't have to pay off for years (and which you'll then be paying off for many years).
Pretty soon they realize that the online study of law is serious stuff for a serious, motivated adult student.
CalSouthern: Any tips or words of advice for current or aspiring CalSouthern law students?
Miller: For law school, just take it week by week. The workload is intense, as is the stress. It may sound like a cliché, but if I had allowed myself to think about how much was ahead of me a year or even a month in advance, I think I may have given up. Also, pay attention to your mentors' feedback and incorporate their suggestions into future assignments. And do whatever it takes to avoid falling behind.
As for the bar exam, I strongly suggest taking a professional bar review course. I did, and I also took advantage of an online program called AdaptiBar, which I found extremely helpful for the Multistate Bar Examination.
Toepel: When you study, don't give yourself an easy out. Go to the library. Pack a lunch and stay there for four or five hours. Hide yourself in a cubicle in a quiet corner and just do the work. I found that this sort of routine really put me into study mode and helped my get the most out of my study time.
Regarding the bar, I advise investing in a bar review course. They can be expensive, but they are worth it and extremely helpful in that they limit, to an extent, the materials you have to review. If you simply had all your law textbooks and notes, you would never know where to begin or where to focus your attention.
And finally, I urge students to believe in themselves. Be confident. You wouldn't have graduated from law school if you weren't capable of identifying issues and laying out a persuasive legal argument. You have what it takes to pass. Don't lose sight of that.
CalSouthern: Would you recommend CalSouthern to a friend who was interested in the study of law?
Miller: I would highly recommend CalSouthern and I have recommended it. But it has to be the right person. You need to be bright, self-motivated and willing to put in the work.
Toepel: Absolutely! I would recommend CalSouthern to a serious adult student looking to begin law school. I would also recommend it to someone who, like me, may have had a bad previous law school experience. They need to know that there's another option and that they don't need to throw in the towel and give up on their dreams.
CalSouthern: Here's the question we've been waiting for: could you tell us what it was like when you first learned that you had passed the bar?
Miller: I am pretty sure I screamed. I mean, literally screamed. And then I poured myself a martini. Then I emailed everyone I knew. It was the greatest feeling. I still get a huge smile on my face remembering it. All that hard work paid off.
Toepel: When it came time to learn the results, my wife and I went over to a friend's house with a bottle of champagne. I suppose that was tempting fate, but I figured I would want a drink one way or the other! I logged in to the bar's website, entered my bar applicant number and received a response with red writing—never good—stating that I was receiving the message because I was not on the pass list or because I had entered the number incorrectly. I re-entered my info and received the same message. So I put the phone down, resigned to the fact that I had failed—I was devastated. My wife took my phone and looked at the number and saw that it was missing a digit. I was going to re-enter the information a third time, but this time my wife kept the phone—she didn't trust me to do it correctly. She entered the information and then a big smile came across her face and we all started cheering. It was a great day!