Empire College School of Law eyeing merger with Monterey College of Law

Empire College, the 62-year-old private Sonoma County institution that moved to shed its business school two years ago amid declining enrollment, is closing in on a planned merger with another private law school on the Central Coast.

Empire College is firming up a merger agreement with Monterey College of Law, officials from the two institutions said. The deal, expected to be finalized within a month, would make the Santa Rosa institution’s School of Law the third satellite campus and boost the Santa Cruz-based college’s enrollment by nearly one-third.

Since the closure of Empire College’s business school, the for-profit college has been dedicated exclusively to students pursuing law degrees.

“We believe that combining our talents and resources would be an appropriate merger for the two of us, as long as we can maintain the identity of the Empire College School of Law, maintain all of the professors that we currently have, maintain the administrative staff that we currently have, and ensure that our students, in effect, a see a seamless transition to towards their end goal, which is the Juris Doctor program,” said Roy Hurd, president of Empire College.

The law school started in 1971, a decade after the late Henry Trione founded Empire College in Santa Rosa. Currently, the law school has 70 students. If the merger is finalized as expected, it would be completed in July or August. In anticipation of that, the last cohort of Master of Law Studies degree students will be admitted this summer and move through the J.D. program, starting a three- to four-year changeover to a satellite campus, perhaps called Empire College of Law, Hurd said.

Empire College graduates make up about a quarter of the Sonoma County Bar, according to the school.

“It’s important to continue with his tradition,” he said of Trione. “We’ve produced 16 members of the judiciary out of this college. That’s a legacy that needs to be perpetuated.”

Monterey College of Law was founded in 1972 and has 220 students at its main campus plus satellites San Luis Obispo College of Law and Kern County College of Law, as well as a 3-year-old partly online J.D. program, according to Mitchel Winick, president and dean.

“Monterey College of Law was formed 50 years ago … with the idea that local community members — who have homes, jobs, families, roots in the community, who might want to either change careers or enter the career of law — don't have to pack up and go to the big cities to become lawyers,” Winick said.

He’s been a vocal advocate for the State Bar of California to lower its passing grade score from 1,390, perhaps to the statewide average of 1,350, arguing that the higher score has a disproportionate impact on the racial makeup of attorneys in the state. Sixty percent of the college’s students are non-white.

Monterey College of Law’s pass rate on the state bar exam last year was 53.8%, up from 47.9% in 2018 and on par with the passing rates for 2019-2020, according to the bar. Empire College School of Law’s pass rate was 59.3% last fall, up from about 46% in 2019-2000 and 55.4% in 2018.

Both colleges are registered California Accredited Law Schools, which must maintain a five-year cumulative pass rate of 40%, lower than the 75% two-year rate for American Bar Association-approved schools in the state.

A J.D. from Monterey College of Law costs $60,000-$70,000, while that degree from an ABA-sanctioned school can cost as much as $250,000.

The merger has taken shape after a year of talks between Empire and Monterey colleges, and at a time when both have been pursuing regional accreditation, according to Hurd. New accreditation is important because it would expand the ranks of students who can apply for financial aid, he said.

Before the two sides cemented the merger plan, Empire College had been seeking to convert the School of Law to a nonprofit. The college had been struggling with dwindling enrollment, down by as much as one-quarter, mostly in the School of Business.

In 2020, the college announced it would wind down the business school programs. The last cohort of business students completed their programs five months ago, Hurd said.

No changes are in the works for the School of Law’s master’s and doctorate programs for at least the next three years.The college has downsized from the 44,000-square-foot space it occupied in a two-story building at 3035 Cleveland Ave. to 10,000 square feet on the second floor, which is better equipped for online classes.

The first floor is set to be the new home of Eye Care Institute, which plans to relocate its downtown Santa Rosa and northeast Petaluma locations to the Cleveland Avenue site in June. Sonoma County Bar Association also is set to occupy part of the second floor.

The two Sonoma County Superior Court courtrooms will continue to operate on the property, and the officiating judges there will continue to be on the law school faculty, Hurd said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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