California Western School of Law Kicks off Partnership with West Arete to Build Custom Student Information System

Customer Story

Part 1:

This is the beginning of a success story about failure.

Located in the heart of San Diego’s legal and political community, the California Western School of Law (CWSL) was founded in 1924 with a strong commitment to solving human and societal problems. As the only nationally accredited law school in the United States, CWSL upholds its mission to train ethical, competent and compassionate lawyers who creatively fight against social and environmental injustices within the US legal system.

CWSL has a strong historic commitment to diversity and underserved communities – the same communities that represent their student body population. And, leading the way in lawful equality, their accomplishments are profound. The school launched the California Innocence Project in 1999, dedicated to the release of the wrongfully convicted. Averaging about 670 Juris Doctor students each school year, CWSL may be small in numbers, but its impact is substantial.

In the early ’90s, a Student Information System, InfoLink, was created for CWSL to store critical data – student records, payment accounts, and vast amounts of other sensitive documentation. Throughout the decades, technology evolved at a fever pitch while InfoLink remained the technological backbone of the school. Initially, it provided a sturdy foundation, but the program was written in Microsoft’s Visual Basic and updates were difficult, if not impossible. Their technology team added functionality and created workarounds so that staff and students could still access their information. Each patch would solve the immediate problem, but by doing so, it also created a more tangled web around an archaic software program. 

As the COVID pandemic forced the world to rely on technology in new ways, it was time to modernize the way information was being handled electronically. A program that could only run on a Windows 7 virtual machine, but was trusted with all the information and records for San Diego’s oldest law school was impractical and, with each new software update, presented additional risks.

In 2021, David Blake, VP of Administration, accepted the challenge to modernize the school’s software platform. Armed with the unwavering support of his school, he set out to find the solution. Boasting the best off-the-shelf education management software on the market, CWSL inked a deal with a separate, large-scale software company. Promises were made, expectations were high, and excitement was in the air. Finally, a system that would unify all the school’s departments into a modern software product was within reach.

And so, a budget was set to replace their current software infrastructure. Hopeful that the company would be able to provide the solution of their dreams, interviews were conducted to untangle the inner workings of InfoLink.

But, CWSL also knew that they couldn’t go back. It was too dangerous to continue to rely on a platform whose inner workings were understood by so few, and whose continued operation depended on other discontinued software. Each of the records in the database represented an extraordinary person who had invested in their education and was set to leverage their newly-learned skills to help worthy legal causes, and this valuable data now had far from a certain future.

One month passed. More interviews, more messages, more Zoom calls. The excitement started to fade as CWSL was forced to accept significant compromises that undermined their current processes.

One year passed. Thousands of pages of notes, charts, and spreadsheets filled computers. Hundreds of hours had been invested by the staff in research and software demonstrations. Yet, there were still no results to show or even a promise of a launch date. It was becoming apparent that the direction they were heading was not what they were promised.

After spending substantial funding on what seemed like snake oil, it was time to cut losses. CWSL’s leadership concluded that they would have to cancel the project and abandon what they had been promised in order to move forward.

To help bring about a shift in approach, David brought in the experienced Information Technology Consultant Les Page of Legalis Tech Consulting, LLC. With more than 35 years of IT strategy and business alignment experience, Les was the trusted advisor David needed to help find CWSL’s next technology partner – one capable of serving this law school’s unique needs.

This was the perfect opportunity for Les to draw on his extensive knowledge of complex software rollouts. Plenty of alternative off-the-shelf education technology solutions existed, but all seemed to make the same promises as the previous company.

CWSL had just experienced a failed integration with what would have ordinarily been considered to be a “safe” and conventional industry bet. What should they choose as a technology platform instead?

Les and David both knew from experience that it’s not just a question of technology nor feature comparisons. And the issue that they seemed to be running into was that CWSL’s needs felt justifiably unique.


“When the promises of our previous software vendor didn’t match up, it came down to to what extent the software was expected to accommodate our institution, vs. the extent to which the institution would be required to adapt for the software. In our case, the expectations that the previous vendor had for CWSL’s ability to adapt was unrealistic. For many reasons, we simply couldn’t change the nature of the institution to fit the software.”

David Blake
VP of Administration, California Western School of Law


Then, deeper investigation of alternatives led them to West Arete’s virtual doorstep. 

It was clear that West Arete’s approach to enterprise software for higher education was completely different. Whereas traditional software vendors must sell a single platform that is designed to serve as many customers as possible, West Arete offers “enterprise software designed for an audience of one.” This was promising for a school that didn’t feel like any of the software out there was a perfect fit.


“After a failed SIS implementation project, CWSL found itself at a decision point of choosing further investment in a legacy home grown Visual Basic application with severe limitations, or developing a modern fully customized web-based tool. Feedback and surveys gathered from stakeholders revealed an investment in partnering with a software development team with higher education experience made the most sense, from a cost and capability perspective.”

Les Page
Information Technology Consultant, Legalis Tech Consulting


Les’ confidence in the approach was boosted by West Arete’s long track record of applications serving higher education, with full support.

He was also encouraged that West Arete felt it was possible to pursue an agile approach that would allow for an incremental transition to the new platform starting in months, rather than a large comprehensive launch a couple years out. This approach is usually not possible when there is a large legacy system that needs to continue running.

And, in a win for long-term sustainability, CWSL would own the core intellectual property, helping to ensure that their data and workflow wouldn’t be at the complete mercy of a single company’s price increase or acquisition down the road.

In the end, it was evident that this approach was the best fit. CWSL and West Arete officially began their professional partnership as of January 2022.


“West Arete understands that the institution itself is almost always in the best position to judge which parts of its operations should be standardized to match an industry norm, and which parts need to be unique. The software should model the way that the institution thinks, rather than the other way around. This is a continuous process; the software will need to continue to adapt to the institution’s needs over the course of decades.”

Scott Woods
CEO & Founder, West Arete


Student Information Systems (SISs) represent one of the most fundamental flows of information through an institution. If the information or workflows are mismatched with how the institution needs to function, then the friction is felt by every user. But, if the SIS is thoughtfully designed for that particular institution, the staff and students can focus on what they do best. And that is exactly what David and Les envision for the CWSL campus.

West Arete’s breadth of knowledge provides unmatched expertise to facilitate critical software for institutions of all sizes. In line with the company’s mission, software should never be a barrier to incredible people making a positive impact on the world. 

And sometimes, what seems like a failure at first, ends up being a successful path towards worthwhile change. 

Adjourned.


This story is the first installment in a multi-part series highlighting our partnership with the California Western School of Law. This project is currently underway, so please check back on our Insights page to follow CWSL’s exciting journey.

West Arete provides highly specialized enterprise software for higher education. Connect with us to explore how we might create the system that is a perfect fit for your institution.


California Western School of Law

cwsl.edu

CWSL Mission Statement: California Western School of Law is committed to using the law to solve human and societal problems. Our mission is to train ethical, competent and compassionate lawyers, representative of our diverse society, who can use the law effectively and creatively.

David Blake, PhD

VP of Administration,
California Western School of Law

David Blake is the VP of Administration at California Western School of Law in San Diego, CA. As a long-standing employee, David has held several prominent positions at the institution. He has also led HR and Administrative functions at several universities throughout the western United States. Outside of CWSL, David is also the CEO at Building Forward Now, LLC, a specialized consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders, teams, and organizations move forward with purpose and vision.

Les Page

Information Technology Consultant,
Legalis Tech Consulting

Les Page has more than 35 years of IT strategy and business alignment experience as Director of IT, CTO, and CIO for multinational organizations, and has built and led high-performing IT teams. Legalis Tech Consulting provides Virtual CIO services as well as technology and IT organization assessments, cybersecurity planning, IT management best practices, and policy development among other services.

Scott Woods

CEO & Founder,
West Arete

Scott Woods is CEO of West Arete. Since 2005, higher education has trusted him and his team to design and develop mission-critical software to run their colleges and universities. West Arete has been recognized as one of the “Best for the World” companies for workers by B Lab, the organization that certifies benefit corporations. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Penn State.

The Team at West Arete

West Arete approaches client work as a holistic, team effort, leveraging the best tools and practices in the industry. With a breadth of expertise in custom integrations, development, and design for higher education, our passion is crafting software that makes a positive impact. Learn more about who we are in our Team section, or drop a line and say hello!

Let’s Connect

The first step is often a zero-pressure phone call to answer questions and explore whether we both feel that there could be a fit.