Jeff Jardine: Why wait? Oakdale resident cuts years, costs off getting law degree

01/22/2014 5:28 PM

01/23/2014 5:37 PM

When Spencer Sinclair passed the California State Bar exam and became a full-fledged attorney last fall, it never occurred to him he might be among the youngest in the state to do so.

Of course, when you’ve spent the last two years of high school taking college-level classes ... when you’ve amassed college credits by taking classes online simultaneously through multiple schools ... when you’ve fast-tracked your way through a four-year law program in just three years ... and when you’ve studied 10 hours a day, six days a week to pass the bar exam ... that kind of factoid understandably gets lost in the process.

Indeed, Sinclair took and passed the bar at 22 years old, making him the ninth-youngest Californian to do so, according to the State Bar of California. Kathleen Holtz of Westwood was just 18 and the youngest in the entire nation when she received her law license in 2007. The average age of attorneys admitted to the bar is 30, according to a Los Angeles Times story about Holtz.

Sinclair not only prepared to study the law but also did the math, assessing his options before graduating from Oakdale High in 2009.

“I’d been accepted to University of the Pacific, UC Santa Barbara and some other UCs,” he said. “I decided for money reasons and for speed to go to a community college. I took online classes at four different community colleges at the same time.”

He earned his associate degree from Cerra Coso Community College in Southern California – a school he’d never heard of until he enrolled online. “I’ve never been to the campus,” he said.

He’d heard of students who earned undergraduate degrees from traditional four-year schools and then went on to law school, going hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole to get their law degrees. He was unwilling to incur the soaring college costs that leave graduates mired in student loan debt for decades.

“I know of people who are paying $2,500 a month on their student loan payments,” he said.

The solution? His brother, Ben, studied at the Humphreys College Laurence Drivon School of Law.

“He hated it,” Sinclair said. “But he said, ‘If this is what you want to do, you can go here without a bachelor’s degree and graduate ahead of schedule.’ ”

So Spencer enrolled at Humphreys. Graduates must complete 117 units at $443 per unit in a program designed for four years. They pay roughly $52,000 regardless of whether they fast-track or stay all four years, said Santa Lopez-Minatre, the school’s director of admissions. After the first year, Sinclair asked the dean if he could accelerate his program to finish in three years.

“I didn’t want to be there a fourth year,” he said. “It was a calculated financial decision. It was better not to have overwhelming debt.”

By getting into the workplace more quickly, he could begin knocking out whatever student debt he’d acquired.

“He’s very ambitious – a high achiever,” Lopez-Minatre said.

Sinclair graduated at 21 – class valedictorian – and took the bar exam a few months later, passing on his first try at age 22. And he’s not the school’s youngest. Two members of the same family graduated and passed at age 20, Lopez-Minatre said.

While awaiting his results, Sinclair went to work as a law clerk at Stockton’s Corren & Corren firm with the promise that he’d be hired as an attorney if he passed. That notification arrived in September, and they assigned him to work primarily on employment cases representing plaintiffs in workplace discrimination and other cases.

Granted, Humphreys might not carry the prestige of a law degree from an Ivy League school, or Stanford or Cal out West. But graduates from such renowned schools have failed to pass the bar on their initial tries, he said.

“Once you get your feet in the door and start working, all that matters is if you do your job well,” he said.

That he earned his law degree, his license to practice and began doing so roughly eight years younger than most is impressive.

That he did so without accruing enough debt to pay for the 49ers’ new stadium is even more remarkable.

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