Chapman University is on track to become the only American Bar Assn.-approved law school in Orange County, filling a void created by the departure of Pepperdine University nearly 17 years ago.
“We want to return law to its rightful place as a noble profession,” said Chapman University’s Law School Dean Jeremy Miller, who welcomes the first class of 160 full- and part-time students this morning. “We are really conducting an experiment here, but I think it’s one that will work.”
The keystone of that experiment, said Miller, is discarding the intimidating aspects of the Socratic teaching method popularized in such films as “The Paper Chase” and such books as Scott Turow’s “One L.” With a mind toward preparing them for courtroom savagery, many law school professors single out students and barrage them with bullying questions.
“If law students are treated in a manner that essentially amounts to hazing, they are going to come out with an attitude--and they do,” said the Yale-educated Miller, 41, who recently left a teaching post at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, which is not accredited by the ABA.
The disdain for attorneys that spawned “dead lawyer jokes” in recent years is in part traceable to this outdated teaching method, said Miller, the winner of several teaching awards. The often humiliating method sends a signal to law students that they can mistreat people just as they have been mistreated, he said.
“It really breeds an attitude of ‘I paid my dues, now I’m going to get mine,’ ” said Miller, who is also editor-in-chief of Orange County Lawyer magazine, published by the Orange County Bar Assn.
Chapman Law School wants to help reverse the public’s negative perception by training its students like “doctoral candidates instead of grammar school students,” Miller said. He rejects the argument that the technique will render lawyers timid in the face of aggressive courtroom opponents.
“Strength and gentleness go together,” said Miller, whose office walls are dotted with copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and a portrait of his hero, Thomas Jefferson. “And, in fact, bullying and cowardice go together.”
Chapman will require its students to donate 70 hours of legal services to a nonprofit organization or to lecture high school classes about the law.
Chapman Law School recruited faculty and staff with Miller’s teaching philosophy in mind. Half of the faculty, which includes nine professors, Miller and two other deans, have been voted “professors of the year” at their former teaching posts.
Hugh Hewitt, former assistant counsel during the Reagan Administration, said he was eager to join Chapman’s faculty to continue the teaching excellence for which the undergraduate program is already known. Hewitt, a prominent Orange County attorney and a co-host of the PBS talk show “Life & Times,” applauds Chapman’s approach.
“I came across my share of professors who were more interested in conveying how much they knew and embarrassing students than teaching the students,” said Hewitt. “You can be demanding professor without being a jerk about it.”
Michael Clark, 25, who got an undergraduate degree in legal studies from Chapman, says the school will make him a better lawyer.
“Our legal system is in trouble. Attorneys have a reputation for being sharks and vicious,” said Clark, one of 100 full-time law students enrolled. “That’s just not a necessary part of being a great lawyer.”
While the teaching emphasis may be firmly established, the location of the campus in the long-term is less clear. The small campus resides in a nondescript Anaheim office building at 1240 S. State College Blvd.
Chapman officials expect the law school to relocate within two or three years to a site closer to the school’s main campus in Orange. By that time, the law school hopes to be at a full enrollment of 700 students.
Meanwhile, Chapman officials have placed themselves on the fast track for obtaining ABA approval, which they anticipate having by 1997 when its first class will graduate. The school has hired a consultant and has earmarked $25 million to secure accreditation. Among other things, the ABA wants accredited schools to keep student-faculty ratios low and build its own legal libraries.