Innovation Elevates OU Law Program

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Academic Convocation
Boren Atrium
Harroz Sotomayor Stage

Innovation Elevates OU Law Program

by Tim Farley

University of Oklahoma Law School Dean Joseph Harroz asked the right questions and walked away with some innovative, creative answers that have elevated the OU program among the most elite in the nation.

Now in his fifth year as the law school dean, Harroz and his law faculty are preparing the OU students not only for a job, but a career that will benefit society at large. With the highest ranking of any law school in Oklahoma, the OU law program offers one of the best values in the nation as well.

“We are teaching the next great generation of lawyers and we are at a price that allows students to pursue the career of their dreams and you can’t beat the legal education itself,” Harroz said. “Whether it’s teaching them about service to their clients or service to society, this is not just about a career.”

Patterning itself after the College of Medicine’s white coat ceremony, the law school requires all first year students to participate in an Owl ceremony, which symbolizes wisdom. At that time, the students take a professionalism oath and are presented with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, a document they will all vow to uphold during their careers.

“We want them to understand what role lawyers play in society,” Harroz said.

It’s not solely about representing clients who pay legal fees, but also protecting the rights of people who can’t afford an attorney. According to Harroz, 98 percent of all OU law school students participate in a pro bono program, giving 50 to 100 hours of free time to represent indigent people with a wide variety of legal problems.

“We’ve jumped from 4,000 hours of pro bono time to 15,000 hours in the last four years,” the dean said. “Typically, you’ll see them helping children and victims of domestic abuse.”

In addition, funding for OU’s public interest fellowships have increased allowing law school students to assist prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal cases.

“We want students to have a broad base of experience. We want them to have a mindset to be a professional and someone who serves others. Lawyers are there when someone who is going through one of the greatest crisis in their lives.”

Evolving curriculum

One of the questions Harroz asked after being hired as law school dean was how could he and his staff create an educational experience that is world class. For the past 100 years, law school education hadn’t changed much.

“You come to class, listen to the professor lecture and take one test at the end of the semester,” he said. “It seemed like we needed to be more progressive, especially with the era of specialization. We saw the need for a greater portfolio of options.”

The answer to the question was to create more joint degrees and certificates that would add to the juris doctorate students eventually earn. For example, OU’s law school now offers a master’s in health administration to go along with the law degree. Since OU is a comprehensive research university with a world class medical school, that particular offering has become “very useful and sought after,” Harroz said.

In addition, OU offers a three-year MBA-juris doctorate degree for students who want to specialize in corporate and business law. Then, there’s certificates law school grads can earn with specialties in business and entrepreneurship, litigation, Native Peoples law and energy and natural resources.

“It’s a way to come out of law school with more emphasis in one area,” Harroz said.

During a law student’s time at OU, there are new types of classes that will enhance the overall education. For instance, Harroz implemented simulations that allow students to experience how one company buys another.

“We have two real companies and we create a fake transaction that gives the students the chance to know what occurs if one firm merges with another. How do you handle the financing? They experience the due diligence that occurs on both sides of the transaction,” he said.

In another case, students who want to specialize in energy law go to well sites to see how an oil and gas company functions in the real world.

The OU law school also offers clinics that allow students to help people who have been charged with misdemeanors or have family/domestic problems. In all these cases, the students are supervised by their law professors.

In the beginning

From the first day of law school, OU students are assigned a career counselor whose job is to monitor the classes they take and help them decide on a potential career path.

“It’s not just getting a job at some firm, but you’re building a career,” Harroz said.

Many successful and notable attorneys have graduated from OU law school, including OU President David Boren, Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis, Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry, former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Turpen, former Oklahoma County District Attorney Andy Coats and Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor.

Those men graduated years ago and the law school landscape nationally has drastically changed since they were at OU.

“Now, you have to ask ‘Is this working?’ Harroz said, referring to the number of law school admissions nationwide. “There’s been a decrease of 50 percent and there are number of school in free fall right now. The big question is how are you doing in the context of this change.”

Apparently, OU is excelling in a racially changing law school environment, according to Harroz.

In the last two years, OU has been in the top 10 percent in terms of the undergrad grade point averages and Law School Admission Test results students are achieving.

“That puts us in unusual company,” the dean said. “We actually have grown in those areas.”
OU also is at the top of the list for law school grads who have obtained long-term jobs.

Noble profession

For decades, lawyer jokes have become common place. For instance, why won’t sharks attack lawyers? Answer: Professional courtesy. How do you know when a lawyer is lying? Answer: His lips are moving.

Harroz acknowledges the lawyer humor and said in some instances the jokes are deserved. But overall, he contends, the law remains a noble profession.

“What you do doesn’t just influence the person you’re working for or with, but also society,” he said. “I think the criticism we, as lawyers, receive stems from the importance of our role in this country. On a global basis, what’s the most important economy besides ours? China’s is. But there, there is no rule of law. You can’t seek and get justice if you need it.”

The key to America’s juris prudence system is due process advocacy, a process that allows people to resolve disputes in a way that is peaceful, Harroz said.

During his career as a lawyer, Harroz has handled an untold number of cases, most of them in higher education where he has worked for 20 years and as a private lawyer in Oklahoma City.

Prior to landing in the dean’s office, Harroz was OU’s general counsel for 12 years. He’s also worked as a commercial litigator at Oklahoma City’s Crowe & Dunleavy firm and also managed a publicly-traded healthcare company for two years.

Facilities

The OU law school building, known as Andrew M. Coats Hall, is one of the finest in the nation. It includes the Dick Bell Courtroom, one of the largest and most technologically advanced courtrooms in the country. The 250-seat courtroom has hosted appellate cases from both the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (including a death penalty appeal) and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, as well as civil trials from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Interestingly, the audience seats originally were used at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Another fascinating part of the OU law school is the Donald E. Pray Law Library, which provides a comfortable and modern setting for studying and conducting legal research. Students, faculty, attorneys and public patrons have access to all major legal databases, many specialty databases and an extensive print collection.

The current law library, built in 2002, has 52,600 square feet and holds 370,000 volumes of law books. It has 50 computer stations and seats 425 people.

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