I feel inspired when I speak with UC Irvine School of Law's dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, in the same sort of way I felt inspired when I was in college - like I could do anything I put my mind to. Back then, I was the eternally dreamy optimist - just ask my parents, who spent many a frustrated evening giving me gentle lectures about balancing lofty ideals with prudent pragmatism. The lectures didn't work, mostly - I'm still an idealist at heart - so it's nice to hear the same sort of quixotic visions that Chemerinsky has for the UCI School of Law, though his foresight comes with a much heavier dose of experience. Consider: Chemerinsky has navigated the hallways of esteemed law schools for nearly 29 years from the University of Southern California, where he was a highly respected professor of public interest law, legal ethics and political science for 21 years, to Duke University, where he most recently served as a professor of law and political science. Named one of the top 20 legal thinkers in America in 2005 by Legal Affairs magazine, he has used his expertise not only to argue appellate cases, at times in the United States Supreme Court, but also to be a promoter of public service, for which he has received a long list of awards for everything from his commitment to community service to recognition as a courageous advocate from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
It's something of an understatement to say that Chemerinsky's experience affords him the high hopes and optimism he speaks about for the UCI School of Law and its graduates, and I can't help but be transfixed by it.
|UCI School of Law
BY THE NUMBERS
4:1 Student to faculty ratio in the first year of the law school, the highest in the nation
12:1 Student to faculty ratio when the law school reaches its full capacity of 600 students
60 Number of students that will make up the UCI School of Law's first class
60 Number of full tuition scholarships the law school hopes to provide for the founding class
24 Millions of dollars in private donations the law school has received to date
"My central vision is to do a better job than the rest of the country in preparing students for the practice of law, whatever kind of law they go into," says Chemerinsky, whose name many will likely recognize from the maelstrom of partisan controversy that erupted over his hiring (and subsequent firing and re-hiring) as dean of the UCI School of Law last year. With that hiccup firmly in the past, Chemerinsky is looking to the future of the law school, when the inaugural class will attend their first lecture in the fall of 2009.
Though it's nearly a year until that time, he and his founding faculty have been at work for months putting together some of the courses and programs that will set up the law school to compete with the best in the nation. Working from the ground up, the UCI School of Law faculty is in a unique position to design and implement a top-notch, customized curriculum - a scenario that hasn't presented itself since 1968, when the last public law school in California was opened at UC Davis.
"This is our chance to create a new and better version of a law school," says Chemerinsky. "I want students to leave here better prepared to [practice law] than I was when I graduated from law school, and better than I think other law schools do it today."
Part of that strategy involves an emphasis on clinical experience, which gives students a practical understanding of complex, real life legal situations by allowing them to work on actual cases under the guidance of a faculty member. A virtually blank slate also gives the UCI School of Law staff the opportunity to incorporate the university's existing wide breadth of respected research departments to create interdisciplinary law clinics that complement a student's area of interest.
"I think in order to practice business law at a high level you need to know some economics, or if you're going to be a criminal lawyer it helps to know some psychology," says Chemerinsky.
The stress on clinical experience is evidenced by faculty additions like Carrie Hempel, a clinical professor at USC for nearly 15 years, to be the associate dean of clinical education and service learning.
"One of the things that has been criticized about legal education in the last several years is that law schools don't prepare students with the wide range of skills that they need to practice," says Hempel, referencing a copy of Educating Lawyers, a book recently published by the Carnegie Foundation that examines the strengths and weaknesses of current teaching practices at law schools. Her role at the law school is to address that void through clinics run in conjunction with the needs of the greater Orange County community that deal with topics ranging from intellectual property to environmental law, criminology and immigration.
Other courses like fact investigation and negotiations - which are often overlooked even at top law schools - are also a part of a comprehensive curriculum plan for the UCI law program. According to founding faculty member Henry Weinstein, a UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law graduate and former L.A. Times staff writer who focused largely on legal matters, teaching investigative techniques is a skill that's vital to a practicing lawyer.
"Knowing the facts is obviously relevant in any law school," he says, "but it's a subject that's not taught very often." It's also something Weinstein happens to be very good at. In his nearly 40 years in journalism, Weinstein has written more than 3,000 articles on everything from white-collar crime and mortgage fraud to the death penalty and wrongful convictions. One of his proudest accomplishments involved the 2004 release of Thomas Goldstein, a former Marine who had been wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years for allegedly shooting a man to death in Long Beach in 1979.
"It gives you a good feeling to get someone out of jail who didn't deserve to be there," says Weinstein. "A good legal system should try to resolve these issues."
The stories and accomplishments go on for the diverse faculty at UCI, but they all share a similar theme: the desire to use their legal acumen as a vehicle to contribute to public service. This is perhaps the greatest mission - and asset - of the UCI School of Law: Not only to have a dedication to instilling the value of public service into every one of its graduates, but to enlist the living, breathing proof of those values. It's a subject that Chemerinsky and his staff return to often, whether discussing their role as representation for indigent prisoners, as Hempel did while acting as directing attorney for the Post-Conviction Justice Project at USC; or exposing a 1979 housing loan fraud in Los Angeles that caused more than 1,000 families to lose their homes, as Weinstein reported on early in his career.
"I believe all lawyers have a duty to use their training to make society better," says Chemerinsky. Under his team's leadership, they likely will.
For more on the UCI School of Law, visit law.uci.edu.