While the television lawyer grilling a hapless witness might make for good prime-time entertainment, 900 law students at California Western School of Law learn that real-world law practice — unlike TV drama — demands complex and varied skills.
“Our graduates don’t just look for the shortest route between their clients and a victorious finish line,” said Professor Janet Bowermaster, associate dean for academic affairs. “When examining a legal problem, they look at all the resources a rigorous legal education has given them, they evaluate the social and economic context of the issue, and they test the widest definition of ‘best possible outcome’ for their client.”
“In short, we teach them to see the big picture.”
What law school ought to be
A visitor to California Western walking the halls or sitting in on a class expecting to see domineering Professor Kingsfield-types from “The Paper Chase” might be surprised.
School leaders, after looking hard at both the lawyer’s role in society and a law school’s role in educating future lawyers, recognized that California Western for years has been shaping a different type of law school experience. That experience focuses on developing lawyers as creative problem solvers rather than a one-dimensional image of “lawyer as fighter.”
In a recent ABA Journal issue, columnist Steven Keeva said California Western’s approach to teaching the law is intriguing for two reasons.
“It is vital to our communities that problems be well-solved with the legal system. We relegate our hardest problems to the law,” he wrote.
The second reason is even more compelling, he wrote: “Doing creative work feels great. In studies of creative people in the arts, business, science and elsewhere, subjects overwhelmingly claim that they do the work they do because it’s fun. Surely, lawyers deserve to have some work-related fun — at least as much as anyone else.”
Thomas Barton, a long-time California Western professor and director of the Brown Program in Preventive Law based at the school, said the school believes “the highest value for a legal education is to prepare students to view legal matters from a multidimensional perspective.”
“To provide that perspective,” he added, “a law school needs to attract a diverse student body, give those students a thorough classical legal grounding and access to the most contemporary research tools, and offer this in a collegial environment without artificial barriers between students and faculty.
“That is, in fact, what law school ought to be,” Barton said.
Practicing with a wide perspective
California Western administrators and faculty believe several factors make it essential that students are taught to be creative and versatile lawyers with a panoramic vision for today’s complex legal challenges, Bowermaster said.
First, new legal challenges arise faster than ever before and, often, from unexpected sources from different directions — ranging from thorny medical-legal issues illustrated by the Terri Schiavo case to move-away rights in family law to new privacy concerns raised by global terrorism.
Second, students and alumni clearly expressed to the school their desire to pursue a legal career that is personally satisfying. And, she said, the school believes it has a commitment to society to produce lawyers who emphasize the best possible outcome for the client.
By having a wider perspective, California Western graduates are well-equipped to succeed when they enter the legal profession.
“The associates who join us from California Western bring two essential elements to our firm,” said Roy Bell, a partner in the national law firm Ross Dixon Bell and a California Western alumnus and trustee. “They are in command of the core legal skills, including research and communication. And, they’re able to view issues in a richer context that allows them to explore broad options for solutions.”
Federal Magistrate James Stiven has helped shaped the development of more than 18 California Western students who have held internships in his court.
“Each student contributed greatly to the work of the court,” said Stiven, a California Western trustee. “What I found was that students carried the law school’s teaching environment over to their court internship experience. They are interested not only in learning formal content but also gathering insight from the power of personal interaction.”
For Bowermaster, the observations made by Bell and Stiven reflect how important the intersection between legal education and legal practice is for California Western.
“We’re striving to graduate students with a 360-degree perspective,” she said. “They leave school with a wisdom that we define as a combination of deep legal skills and a wide perspective.”