The students and alumni of California Southern University’s School of Law are already quite familiar with the school’s recently named Dean, Bernadette Agaton. She has served as the school’s Associate Dean for nearly a decade, and has expertly guided hundreds of CalSouthern learners through some of the university’s most demanding academic programs. Her extraordinary dedication to her students’ success, as well as her commitment to the law school’s faculty and curriculum, has made her a universally respected figure among the CalSouthern community.
We recently sat down with Dean Agaton to learn more about her background, her long tenure in the law school and her vision for its future.
California Southern University: Your love of learning and for the law is obvious to anyone who meets you. Looking back, when and how did it first develop?
Dean Agaton: I have always been a voracious reader. I remember going to the library as a young girl with my father, leaving with grocery bags full of books. The next week, we would return the books and fill up another grocery bag. I suppose it was this love of reading that led to my intellectual curiosity and passion for learning.
My interest in the law can be traced to my early childhood, as well. I am a child of immigrants, and I can distinctly remember listening to my father talking on the phone, perhaps to a utility or credit card company. My father was extremely intelligent, but he had a thick accent. I remember sensing his frustration at not being able to make himself understood. I believe it’s through experiences such as these that I began to develop a desire to be a champion for the underdog and to help those who didn’t have a voice to navigate the legal system.
CalSouthern: Please tell us about your academic background.
Dean Agaton: I earned my bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), with a double major in Asian American Studies and American Literature and Culture. Upon graduation, I attended Southwestern University School of Law.
CalSouthern: What was your own law school experience like?
Dean Agaton: As any graduate will tell you, law school is extremely challenging. The first year presents a particularly difficult transition. You need to become accustomed to the language of the law and train yourself to think like a lawyer. But as you progress through the program, you become increasingly comfortable. Earning your Juris Doctor—one of the most demanding degrees in all of academia—is one of the most rewarding, enriching and fulfilling academic accomplishments one can achieve.
CalSouthern: Could you describe your experience practicing law?
Dean Agaton: After passing the California bar examination, I joined a local law firm where I practiced primarily in the area of family law. I also did probate work and made appearances in a variety of juvenile and criminal court proceedings.
CalSouthern: You have been at CalSouthern’s School of Law for almost a decade now. What are some of the highlights of your tenure at the school?
Dean Agaton: There are so many. Certainly, going through the accreditation process (first with the Distance Education Accreditation Commission and then with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges) as well as registration with the California Bar were highlights. These are independent bodies with standards that are quite difficult to achieve. It is immensely satisfying to receive third-party validation that we are on the right track and providing a high-quality education for our learners.
But it is working with CalSouthern’s students that I’ve found most rewarding. As I mentioned earlier, these are demanding programs. And our learners face and overcome challenges that most traditional students do not. They are typically hard-working adult professionals, striving to fulfill their personal and professional dreams while juggling career and family obligations. It is a real privilege to play a part in their success.
I never fail to shed a tear when I get a note from a graduate informing me that they have passed the bar exam. Not long ago, I was in the check-out line at a store with my young son when I received a text from a former student that simply said, “We did it!” I let out a little, involuntary scream. My son asked, “What is it, mommy?” I told him that I just learned that one of my students had passed the bar. Even the cashier was happy to hear the news!
CalSouthern: CalSouthern’s bar examination pass rates have also increased during your tenure.
Dean Agaton: Yes, and it is something about which we are very proud. For the past three years, our first-time takers of the California bar exam have maintained a 67 percent pass rate. That far exceeds the average pass rate for law schools of our category and is quite competitive with many traditional law schools, as well.
CalSouthern: We’ve spoken at some length about the JD program. What are some of the other degree programs offered by the school?
Dean Agaton: The Master of Science in Law is an extremely popular program for those students who want a broad exposure to the law at a graduate-school level, but who do not want to practice as an attorney. It has proven to be a fantastic program for business owners and executives, human resource professionals, law enforcement personnel and healthcare administrators, among many others. I am amazed at how frequently I hear from students who tell me how useful the knowledge they have acquired has been in their day-to-day work.
Just this year, we added a Master of Science in Dispute Resolution (MSDR) and a Master of Laws (LLM) program. The MSDR addresses the growing need for mediators and arbitrators, as courts and business increasingly turn to alternative dispute resolution. The LLM offers attorneys the opportunity to grow their practices by gaining specialized expertise in fields such as commerce and global trade, environmental policy and resources, and alternative dispute resolution.
CalSouthern: What is your vision for the future of the law school?
Dean Agaton: We will be looking into a pathway to become accredited by the State Bar of California once the new rules are finalized this year. We would be the first regionally accredited online law school to do so. It would potentially give our learners greater flexibility to move through the JD program at their own pace. Accreditation from the State Bar of California would also eliminate the need for our JD learners to take the First-Year Law Students’ Examination.