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Graduating lawyers with a broader perspective

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Interest in law is at an all-time high. It has become America's latest spectator sport. This interest seems to focus on the most dramatic and bizarre aspects of the legal system: the OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson trials, the Rambo Litigator, the know-it-all legal commentator, the screaming lawyers panel.

California Western School of Law Dean Steven R. Smith

It is bad enough when the law is portrayed in a crazy way in fiction, but this is what the public sees as real life -- just another reality TV series.

This narrow view of our legal system presented to the average citizen is unfortunate because of the caricature it presents to the public. It is also dangerous because we in the profession seem sometimes to believe it ourselves. I speak with law students around the country and for many this narrow image of the law defines much of their understanding of the profession they are about to enter.

I believe lawyers are meant to serve a great purpose -- as society's problem solvers. It is among the most important tasks of our profession to ensure that we, our students and ultimately the public understand this problem-solving role.

Public attention focuses almost exclusively on litigation. In terms of drama, that may make sense.

In real life, however, lawyers know that for any given legal problem, filing suit and going to court may be one solution -- but often not the best one.

Attorneys take on myriad roles in business, social and legal environments and they soon learn that clients need and demand more than just technical competence -- they require attorneys who will take on the role of counselor, considering every solution before fighting courtroom battles. It would be better if more law students knew this as well.

At California Western School of Law, we teach students to see the broader picture within each legal problem. Some creative thinking and a little extra background investigation often lead to a solution that is best for all parties involved - a solution that may not involve lawyers fighting it out in court or in the media.

Our students graduate expecting not only to solve clients' problems, but also to help prevent problems from occurring or reoccurring. They learn that their role as a counselor can mean utilizing methods such as alternative dispute resolution, mediation and creative negotiation to solve potential legal problems and avoid the "Law and Order" drama.

California Western's dedication to a broader perspective starts with the first year of law school. Students experience a rigorous, traditional legal education as a 1L, but at the same time are challenged by their professors to widen their scope of thinking.

We have designed ways to integrate an awareness of this broader perspective into the curriculum.

For instance, first-year students at California Western are introduced to these concepts through an introductory creative problem solving class at orientation. Taught by professor Katharine Rosenberry, this session helps students realize that assumptions about a client's problem made too quickly are likely to be wrong. After discussing a fact pattern, and how the case should be handled, students are able to present solutions that are more creative than those currently suggested by most specialists in the field.

As they progress in their education, our students have the opportunity to consider what the law ought to be.

Examples include the opportunity to: (1) explore ways of reducing medical errors or improving access to health care in our Institute of Health Law Studies; (2) help implement legal reforms in Latin America through our Center for Creative Problem Solving; or (3) help correct legal system failures in cases that resulted in the conviction of an innocent person through the California Innocence Project.

Practical experience allows our graduates to transition into their roles as attorneys who are society's problem solvers. This experience shows them how law is so much more than a spectator sport -- it is a helping, collaborative profession. By considering the big picture, attorneys can help clients and society solve and avoid legal problems.

Smith is dean of California Western School of Law in San Diego and chair-elect of the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar.

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