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Dean’s Q&A: Teaching law in the 21st century

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Steven R. Smith was named dean of California Western School of Law in 1996. He has taught and published widely on health-related legal issues and is chair-elect of the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

Q: What makes a law school successful today?

Successful law schools have obligations to their students, the legal profession and society. California Western defines its success as including four things. First, we want to graduate lawyers who are problem solvers who focus on helping their clients efficiently and effectively meet their goals. Second, we want to prepare students to have satisfying careers as lawyers. Third, we want to help students find their places in the profession. And, finally, we treat lawyers-to-be fairly, compassionately and professionally, ensuring that they know themselves to be prepared for a place in the profession.

Q: Why do students come to California Western to study law?

We are a collegial community in which creativity is recognized and rewarded. We also focus on providing high-quality instruction within a very rich context, including a socially and racially diverse student body. We look at how the law has affected different sectors of society, and the whole student body is enriched by being exposed to these realities. When students do enroll here, everyone from administrators to faculty to staff understand the importance of delivering the legal education students expect to receive in such an environment.

Q: Who is the typical California Western student?

There is no single profile. We have recent college graduates, former military officers, and men and women who have spent several years or even decades in the work force. Students who thrive here tend to be the ones most drawn to diversity and a desire to study a multidimensional approach to the law.

Q: What do you mean by multidimensional approach to the law?

A multidimensional approach combines excellent academic skills with a wide range of practice skills that enable lawyers to be creative, versatile and persistent in finding the best possible outcomes for legal issues facing their clients.

Q: How do students learn this approach?

The collegial culture between students and faculty is enormously important. It creates an atmosphere that invites new ideas, frank dialogue and genuinely healthy discussion of many points of view. There are no artificial barriers between student and faculty at California Western, and we keep hearing how unusual and encouraging this is. A second factor is encouraging students to integrate their curriculum with specializations, to participate in our institutes, and to seek practical experience through internships. All of those factors contribute to preparing students to be highly competent, compassionate and ethical advocates with the broadest possible perspective.

Q: How do the institutes you mentioned fit into the student’s experience?

Our centers and institutes — including the Institute for Criminal Defense Advocacy, Center for Creative Problem Solving, and Institute of Health Law Studies — are a distinguishing factor about California Western. They enrich our students’ law school experience while also enabling California Western to have a substantive impact on the broader society. Our faculty members have a long history of setting up institutes that pay attention to new trends and specialties in the relationship of law and society. Our campus-based institutes focus on overturning wrongful criminal convictions, developing the rule of law in Latin America, researching intellectual property issues, and exploring the critical issues surrounding the intersection of law and health.

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