As I continue my conversations with the deans of law schools throughout Oklahoma, I spoke with Dean Joseph Harroz, Jr., with the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Dean Harroz is not only a part of OU law school, but he is also a university-wide administrator as Vice President of the University of Oklahoma.
The OU College of Law is the state’s only public law school, providing a legal education to approximately 500 students seeking a Juris Doctor, Master of Laws, or Master of Legal Studies degree. There are numerous dual degree and certificate options available to students seeking a specific specialty.
I spoke with Dean Harroz about the challenges facing law students, his role in fostering their legal education, and encouraging them to find their passion in pursuing a career in the legal profession.
Often, there seems to be a disconnect between law students and the administration. Students fail to realize that the deans are “real people.” We are reaching out to law school deans in hopes that students will be able to get to know them, in a sense, and to discover that they are not only knowledgeable, but approachable.
I hope that is not the case here at the University of Oklahoma, and I would like you to reach out to some of our graduates to see how they feel. Let me tell you about some of the things we have done at the law school to try to bridge the gap.
I go down to the Kerr Student Lounge, called “the pit,” where everyone hangs out once a day or every other day. I like to be there with the students spending casual time with them, so that they see me and know that I’m approachable and a real person who is available to them.
When you talk with students in “the pit,” does it seem like they are interested in talking about anything other than law school?
Because it is not a huge class of students, I actually get to spend time with students and get to know them and get to know what is going on. It is one of the reasons I love this job. The conversations range from how they are doing and what’s going on in their lives to careers.
I meet with 5 or 6 students a week in my office talking about career path and trajectory. I’m also hopefully someone they can talk to when they stumble. We all experience self-doubt. We make mistakes every single day, and it’s hard, and we all question our abilities at some point.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing new law school students?
I think number one is getting comfortable with law school. The first year is so uncomfortable and hard. Students need to know that they are going into an honorable profession and a noble profession. We created a formal 1L convocation ceremony, modeled after the medical school’s white coat ceremony, to impress upon the students the importance and the obligations of the legal profession.
Then, I think they need to know that it is okay to have self-doubt. They are learning a foundational legal education, and it is hard, but it should not be miserable. They should know that there are people here to support them.
Next, they need to know how to make their second and third years productive and useful in order to build a set of experiences that will make them someone that employers want. It infuses everything we do: the kind of classes we teach, the offerings we provide in addition to the JD, the joint degrees we structure, and the certificates we offer. It is creating new kinds of classes that involve simulation; it is having programs where the students get to know the profession better; it is creating experiences where the students get a better understanding of themselves and society.
It does not happen by accident. It has to be a community effort that goes into all aspects of it. It can’t be an administration dictating it to the students. In my view, it has to be this cooperation that works together. The reality is once students start here, they are at most 33 months away from being an alumnus/alumna and a professional, and so we had better get it right quickly.
How do you know if OU Law is succeeding in its mission to create talented lawyers?
One of the things that law schools, and especially law deans, look at is U.S. News rankings. While we have been very successful in this area, we are not driven by it. There are a lot of law schools out there across the country where the administration is focused in a very singular way on rankings. That to me is not the right answer.
We should be aware of the rankings, and certainly the students and the public think about them. We have been fortunate in rising in the rankings. You may have seen that we are now the highest rank of any Oklahoma law school in the history of the survey. But we would be absolutely foolish to live by those; they should not drive everything you do.
Instead, we look at those things that matter to us as a law school and focus on those.
One of the things that particular ranking does not include is student satisfaction. I think the reality is that we are here for the students, and how they feel is absolutely critical.
Students want a first-class, fundamental legal education. But as part of that, we want to make sure that our law students have an experience that is meaningful. To do that, we must focus on things that are not included in law school ranking, including student satisfaction.
We have created a student satisfaction survey that lets us know how students are feeling and allows us to chart how we are doing year after year - to know where we are doing better and where we are doing worse.
It has been absolutely invaluable. The survey is online and anonymous, and over half of our students respond to the survey within 48 hours.
This year, over 98% answered good or excellent in ranking overall student satisfaction.
You have mentioned that you are still teaching. Have you noticed any teaching methods that have changed over the years, or things that have changed as far as the way professors approach the class and the way the class interacts with the professors?
Law school essentially stayed the same for 50, 60, 70 years. It was professors teaching in a classroom in a subject-specific way. Over the last three or four years we have been offering the students a portfolio of opportunities—not just the one degree, but certificates and joint degrees and a recognition that it is a more specialized world. We work to help our students understand what is possible, and then help them to get there. That happens inside and outside of the classroom.
We do this in a lot of ways, including experience-based education. We have classes that give broader exposure - not just teaching one slice of it - but giving full exposure to the entire range of activities in that area.
We have a criminal clinic, a civil clinic, an interdisciplinary clinic we do in Oklahoma City, and we have an international human rights clinic. The goal for each of these is to give students a live client, real client interaction. The goal is to provide our students with a spectrum of opportunities that includes in-classroom podium classes, skills classes, simulations, and live clients. The four clinics that we have are an important part of that, and they are the only ones that involve live client representation.
With these programs, students get a wide perspective on opportunities in the legal field. In the areas they think they are interested in, they get enough of a focused look to actually know what is inside of it. For those that want to specialize, joint degrees are a great option. For the students wanting a focused specialty, certificates are a good approach, where they get a balance of general classes and also some really stacked and focused classes in their areas of interest. For students that have no idea which field is most appealing to them, a broader perspective is more useful.
Legal education is not one-size-fits-all. We provide a menu of choices gauged upon a student’s level of certainty about his or her future.
Do you see any current legal challenges before the Supreme Court that in your opinion are going to make waves or could possibly help to frame the immediate future of law?
This may sound like a cop-out answer, but each case that comes down impacts one of our areas of law. That is why they pick these cases: to add more clarity and to help alleviate confusion among circuits. You also see big decisions that aren’t decisions—like the gay marriage issue and the denial of cert. The decision NOT to make a decision is huge.
I think rather than singling out a particular case is the recognition that law is not a static field. The law changes with every decision that comes along.
I think that what makes this such an interesting field is that it is always changing. As it relates to the role of a lawyer, I don’t buy into this premise about Susskind’s book The End of Lawyers? Just because things change does not mean lawyers are needed less. They are just needed differently.
I understand comments that part of the law can be commoditized—yes, there are certain forms that can be produced. But people will always need counsel. Part of what we do is providing the best answer on what the law is, but the real value comes in the counseling function. That is a uniquely human enterprise.
The need for really talented lawyers is something that is growing and that is important fundamentally to society.
If you could invite any six legal identities—living, dead, real, or fictional—to a meal, who would you choose, and why?
I think it would be absolutely fascinating to pick one of the key framers of the Constitution along with probably a mix of key presidents and Chief Justices to discuss not only the foundation of the Constitution but its interpretation and vitality over time. I think it wouldn’t matter which ones, as long as you picked a lead figure from each one of those enterprises. I think that would provide the most remarkable dinner conversation of all time.
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What led you to OU Law? I have wanted to go to law school since I was a teenager. I was active in speech contests and enjoyed making oral presentations. When I was in high school, I would go downtown and watch some of the trials at the courthouse, so, I got acquainted with the courtroom rather early. I obtained a Navy scholarship to go to OU. I was a regular Navy midshipman then I served three years in the far east before coming back to law school. I wanted to attend law school and came back to OU.
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What led you to OU Law? OU Law has been part of my family since the 1920s. My great uncle was Dr. Maurice Merrill, a 1922 graduate of OU Law who then earned a Doctorate in Law from Harvard University in 1925. Merrill taught at OU Law for 30 years, published numerous seminal works in oil and gas law, constitutional law, administrative law and the law of Notice. While still in his twenties, Merrill published the seminal treatise Implied Covenants in Oil and Gas Law, which has been a cornerstone of my cases. In law school, I lived with Uncle Maurice and marveled at his longhand scrawl which was literally final copy in its first draft form. In my mind, he will always be ten times the lawyer that I ever became.