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Friday, June 27, 2008

Irvine's new law school dean shares his plans

As he settles in to his new home and office Erwin Chemerinsky gives his take on how well law schools prepare their students.

The Orange County Register

UCI's new law dean moves around, unpacking and talking at his new hilltop house in University Hills, which looks surprisingly tidy, considering the movers just arrived on Tuesday.

Erwin Chemerinsky, 55, a longtime law professor, constitutional scholar and now, dean of his own school at Irvine, is already clad this morning in dress shirt and slacks. A pair of big dogs gallop around him as he wanders through the kitchen and den, showing visitors around.

While the rest of the family wakes up, Chemerinsky begins to describe how he hopes his new law school at University of California, Irvine, slated to open next year, will be a different kind of place than the one he attended so many years ago.

He starts his new job officially on Tuesday.

Q. You've got written plans for the law school. Can we read them?

A. At this stage, they are all confidential, but I have something written for the law school that will be available soon on our Web site.

Q. Do you have one main goal for the new school?

A. We want to be a top 20 law school as soon as we can, all the faculty and staff are coming from top 20 law schools, but if we just replicate what other top 20 law schools do then we've failed. We have this wonderful opportunity to create the dream law school. The central tension we face is the need to keep a sufficient number of traditional elements, while adding our own innovations.

Q. Many people have been opposed to creation of a new University of California law school, saying the state doesn't need any more lawyers. How would you answer those people?

A. Orange County has 3 million people but it has no public university law school, nor is there one between Los Angeles and the border with Mexico. I think we can create a law school here that will make a difference.

Q. When the UCI chancellor sought approval for this law school, he said it was necessary to create more public interest lawyers. Critics responded that there are already plenty of students who would like to practice public interest law, but the high cost of law school and hefty student loans drive them into private practice. What would you say to those critics?

A. That's just not true. And I can say that from having been a law professor for 20 years. Wherever lawyers go, in big firms or small, they can spare part of their time to serve the public. They should be doing something with their law degree to make the world a better place. We plan to match the Berkeley (law school) loan forgiveness program for students going into a certain range of employment.

Q. As a former law student and longtime professor, certain things must have irritated you over the years that you want to change in your own school. Can you name some of them?

A. I don't think law schools spend time preparing students for the practice of law. We can do a better job. I want every law student to have some clinical experience with at least one client before they graduate. Most students graduate never having had a client. Can you imagine doctors graduating from medical school without ever having seen a patient? I can imagine an engineering student, a business student and a law student getting together to help a client develop a patent, for example.

I want to teach fact investigation. It's a lot of what lawyers have to do and no one teaches it. I have a former student representing Death Row inmates. Also personal injury lawyers. Fact investigation is a big part of their jobs. I have hired L.A. Times (legal affairs) reporter Henry Weinstein to be a professor and teach it to our students.

Also, in most law school, students get one evaluation per course and no feedback. One exam at the end of the semester and then a grade. I would like to have smaller classes and multiple examinations.

Q. Can you remember things specifically that bothered you when you were a law student?

A. I went to Harvard in the 1970s, and, overall, I was disappointed in the quality of the teaching. I had a sense that the faculty that was there then didn't seem to care much about teaching. I want a faculty of excellent teachers. So much of who I am is a teaching dean. Also, law classes were too large.

Q. Why did you go to law school? Did you know you wanted to be a law professor?

A. I went to law school because I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. I knew someday I wanted to be a teacher. At one point I even became certified as a high-school teacher. I suspect that certification has expired. After a number of years in practice, I just fell into a teaching job at DePaul.

Q. You teach. You write a lot. You argue cases before the Supreme Court. You have a family. How do you do it all? Some of your friends joke that you never sleep.

A. I don't need a lot of sleep. I am just high energy. I have a low stress level. I don't obsess and worry about things too much. I think I'm good at figuring out what I need to do every day to get it all done.

Q. What are you doing in the next two weeks?

A. Moving a hundred boxes around that were delivered to my office on Wednesday. I think they were astounded at how many boxes there were.

Q. When Chapman University wants to recruit a new faculty member, the president takes them out on a borrowed yacht in Newport Harbor. How did you recruit your faculty?

A. Well, I don't have a yacht and I don't know how to swim. Don't look shocked. I'm from the south side of Chicago. My pitch is to come and create a dream law school. All the faculty I've recruited are from top 20 schools and that makes it much harder because these are not people who are interested in moving.

Q. You must have been contacted by people who want to come and work here.

A. Oh yes, hundreds of people have called me up and e-mailed me. Not a day goes by that I don't hear from one.

Q. What would you tell a student who wants to come to your school?

A. Students should come and visit us and see our faculty and facilities. We'll be looking at the traditional things: grades, LSAT scores, letters of recommendation, for our starting class of 60. My hope is we'll have full scholarships for a large percentage of the class.

Q. What are your goals this year?

A. By the end of the year, I want to hire three to six more faculty and then the next level of administrators the registrar, for example, and then get the building ready for students. Also do more fundraising.

Q. There was national attention when you were hired, fired and then rehired by UCI Chancellor Michael Drake, which you said at the time was due to political pressure over your liberal politics. What are people saying to you about that now?

A. For the most part, it's in the past. Occasionally, it comes up. I've had a year now of working with Michael Drake and our relationship is better than ever.

Q. How have you changed your outspokenness as a result of your new job as law dean? Have you toned it down?

A. I have an op-ed piece today in the L.A. Times on gun control. I think it's very important for a law faculty to express its opinions to the public on matters of law. And that's part of what I do.

Q. There were some newspaper stories that implied without saying that (billionaire law school donor) Donald Bren was behind the plan to sabotage your appointment. Have you met him?

A. I have met him at functions and he's an important supporter for the law school. Those stories were just false and very unfair to him.

Q. Some Jewish people have described UCI as "the most anti-Semitic campus in America." You are Jewish. What do you think about that?

A. This is something I looked at very closely. I think it's a misapprehension. There was a letter written by students at several Jewish organizations on campus talking about the wonderful Jewish student life here. As a Jew, I have never seen the slightest evidence of anti-Semitism on campus.

There have been some speeches on campus against Israel that crossed over into anti-Semitic speech. But a university has to be a forum for all ideas, even if we don't agree with them.

Q. If your children were raised Jewish, would you send them to UCI?

A. My children have been raised Jewish; there's a picture of my son's recent bar mitzvah right there (he points). If I had any trepidation at all on this point, I would not have accepted a job here. If I had the slightest concern, I would not have come.

Q. So your house looks very organized considering you just moved in. When did you arrive?

A. We flew back Sunday from vacation in Italy and got here Monday. The airline wouldn't take the dogs, so we had a special pet moving service fly them out here earlier and they stayed with some friends in Los Angeles.

Q. Now you've bought a house in University Hills. How does that work?

A. You buy the house and the university owns the land. Usually, faculty get put on a waiting list until some older people retire, but we heard the couple who owned this house was selling, so we were able to buy it. One of the things that attracted me to this campus was that we could live on campus and walk to work. There's a real community feeling here, too. That was one reason we left L.A. (for North Carolina four years ago). We didn't like the traffic and we wanted a different type of community.

Q. Have you met any of your neighbors?

A. Oh yes, people have come over and made us feel welcome. It's very nice.