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Emphasis on expansion, problem solving keeps Cal Western modern

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California Western School of Law's motto is straightforward: "What law school ought to be". But the mission it sets itself -- in the dean's words -- of educating "lawyers who will contribute to improving the lives of their clients and the quality of justice in our society" is not.

Founded in 1924, Cal Western is San Diego's oldest law school, but Dean Steven Smith is determined to take a modern approach to legal education.

The school champions a "problem solving" basis to law education. Highlighted prominently on its Web site is a commitment to "using the law to solve human and societal problems."

"It is a role of attorneys to be problem solvers," Smith said in a recent telephone interview. "Clients come to us because they want to achieve goals."

He argues that this focus on problem solving and outcomes helps students transfer effectively into real legal practice and boosts their employability. One of Cal Western's mantras is the belief that law schools have an ongoing obligation to help students, and former-students, gain access to the legal profession.

Smith has been in his post for 10 years and one of his hallmarks has been the expansion of specialist centers -- for example for health law, public service law and problem solving -- which link the school into the wider community.

He is particularly proud of the work of the Innocence Project. The center reviews convictions obtained in California or Hawaii where there is serious doubt about a person's guilt. Since its inception in 2000, the center has been responsible for freeing four wrongly convicted men.

There is a moral imperative behind the center, the "possibility that truly innocent people are in prison ought to make every lawyer's blood run cold," Smith said, but there is also a practical teaching benefit. The center offers students the opportunity to engage in high-level criminal practice law and experience the process of filing motions and reviewing evidence for real.

This real world approach can also be seen in the Health Law Center, founded in 2004. Smith himself specializes in medical law and this center is particularly close to his heart.

He explains that historically the medical and legal professions have worked closely together, but in the "last couple of generations it has become somewhat estranged... my hope was that center would help create a dialogue bridge between the medical and legal professions."

The center has a cooperative relationship with UCSD Medical School and the director, Professor Bryan A. Liang, J.D, M.D and Ph.D. As part of its outreach policy the center hosts interdisciplinary conferences -- such as this June's "Terrorism, International Crime and Drug Security: Issues in Global Marketplace." Through the specialist centers the school is also exploring offering interdisciplinary programs -- such as a new joint Masters in Health Law with the UCSD School of Medicine.

Smith cites California Western's atmosphere, which he categorizes as one of community and of vigorous intellectual debate, as a key attraction to both staff and students. Simply put it is the belief that "Everyone continues to be a student of the law."

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