The University of Tulsa College of Law has many things to be proud of, not the least of which is its esteemed faculty. From 1923 through the present, Oklahoma’s easternmost law school has assembled a wide variety of legal scholars whom share the same goal: crafting tomorrow’s lawyers today. Since 2008, this group of roughly 40 faculty members, less than 400 students, and the administrative staff have been led by Dean Janet Levit. Over her career, Dean Levit has argued cases before the 10th Circuit and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Moreover, she is a published author who has contributed to various law journals and other publications. Now, her primary focus is progressing Tulsa’s Law School as an administrator and professor. Dean Levit was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to speak to me on a number of topics, ranging from the evolution of legal education and the challenges faced by both law students and administrators to media portrayals of the legal profession. I greatly enjoyed our conversation. I think you will as well.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing law students?
I think the biggest challenge is that the legal market has changed, and so there are fewer traditional associate track jobs available.
Most of our students, statistically, will be practicing in very small firms, and therefore, they will be asked to do really exciting things from the day they graduate and get licensed. They will be asked to meet directly with clients, interview clients, take depositions, write motions, argue motions, go to court, and so they really need to be as practice-ready as possible when they leave law school.
Historically, law schools have not necessarily been set up to produce practice-ready lawyers. There has sort of been an implicit contract between law schools and the bar that the law schools would teach students how to think like lawyers and begin to start approaching skills, but that the practicing bar would do the heavy lifting on really teaching lawyers how to be lawyers.
What I think has been really exciting about the past five years in legal education is that we have really taken a very sharp, serious shift toward bridging the gap between law school and practice.
We have done that through formal clinics; we have done that through devoting resources to experiential learning programs; and we have done it through shifting the classroom experience away from traditional lecture and Socratic Method toward weaving skills—hard skills—into pretty much every class that students take in law school.
When I was a law student, I learned mainly the theory of the law, and I learned how to analyze and think like a lawyer. Today’s law student is really leaving here with hard lawyer skills.
Are there any aspects of practicing law that you miss now that you are a law school administrator?
What is great about practicing law is the interaction with clients and feeling like you make a difference in someone’s life. But I see my students as clients, and I feel like we are making a difference in their lives. I think we are doing our best here to impart them with not only the knowledge of law, but the skills and a framework of ethics and professionalism that will help them become the best that they can become.
I am not practicing law in the traditional sense, but I feel like the things I love about practicing law I have here in teaching students and administering a law school.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as the Dean of the University of Tulsa Law School?
One of the really big challenges is nationally the number of students who want to go to law school has declined precipitously in the last five years. While Oklahoma stayed above the trends for many years because our economy has been stronger, we are not immune to these trends. With the number of applicants decreasing, the challenge is to maintain the quality of our student body.
That has been the primary challenge: How do we maintain the quality of class, the size of class, that allows us to offer all the courses and activities that we think make this place really special?
What are some of the things that your admissions staff looks at when in weighing whether somebody become the kind of attorney that you want associated with the University of Tulsa?
One of the things we look at is statistics: the LSAT, the undergraduate GPA. The undergraduate GPA is shows work ethic and dedication, and the LSAT is highly correlated with success on the bar exam, so those are important.
But we also do a live interview as part of our admissions process. What we are looking for is leadership, for commitment to community, for public service. We are looking for a real ability to articulate why the applicant wants to go to law school and what they see themselves as getting from and giving to the profession. We admit based on the whole student, and I am really proud that we have inserted this interview into our admissions process.
I have had some tremendous conversations with incredibly accomplished applicants. Many of those applicants will come and be students here, and what is fabulous about that is I feel like I know them by the time they arrive here.
For students who might be considering out-of-state law schools, how much clout do you give rankings such as the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings?
We have done incredibly well in the rankings over the past five years. We have come up 75 spots in five years, and that has been helpful to us.
But these rankings wield an inordinate amount of power.
I think that the rankings give too much weight to inputs as opposed to outputs. They rank schools based on LSATs and undergraduate GPA scores as opposed to the value added that the school gives to the students.
They do take into account hiring rates and job placement, but they do it in a way that does not take into account different job markets. The Oklahoma market is going to look very different from the New York or LA market.
The reality is we cannot ignore these rankings because our students and prospective students do not ignore them. For some, they may be the biggest factor in making a decision. I think that is misguided and short-sighted, but that is the reality, and it is not going to change any time soon.
How would you say the law school at the University of Tulsa is different from other programs at the university?
Until the past year, the College of Law was the only college at the University of Tulsa that was one hundred percent graduate, professional college.
This year, we have rolled out an undergraduate minor in law policy in society, so we are now enrolling undergraduates in classes at the law school.
We are doing this because there is some undergraduate demand for training in law, even for those who don’t necessarily want to become lawyers. There are many professionals who could benefit from legal training.
We have also launched two online Master degree programs called Master of Jurisprudence, or M.J., one in energy law and one in Native American law. They are designed for those who are not lawyers, but who work in the respective industries and who could benefit from some legal training in these narrow fields.
We believe that legal education is something much broader than simply going to law school, getting a J.D., and getting a license to practice law. That is why we have approached our undergraduate program and our Master program in the way we have.
What areas of law do you think have the biggest potential for growth over the next decade?
Health law, energy law, and, in this part of the country, Native American law are three areas that I think are poised for growth.
We know that health care is a huge industry and is going to remain a huge industry. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, we are at a moment where there are 19 million people who have health insurance and health care now that did not have it a couple of years ago. I think it is going to be hard to unwind completely the move toward universal health care, and that has great implications.
We know that energy is a huge industry and is going to remain a huge industry—it is just a matter of what the mix of energy will be: oil, gas, or renewables. In this area, the emphasis will still be fossil fuels.
Right now in Oklahoma, many of our tribes are thriving. They are huge, successful businesses; they are injecting tremendous amounts of money into the economy; and their legal system is unique. Any business who hopes to do business with the tribes needs to understand the complexities of the legal system and what it means to do business with the tribes and sovereign nations.
If you could invite any six legal identities—living, dead, real, or fictitious—to dinner, who would you choose?
Thurgood Marshall, Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor, John Grisham, Abraham Lincoln, and Clarence Darrow.
What are some of your favorite legal movies, and why?
This is so funny because I start a class I teach to all first year students with movie clips.
Philadelphia, I think, is a tremendous civil rights movie. I relate to it because it is set during a civil rights moment I remember growing up with.
Judgment at Nuremburg raises a lot of questions about whether law can or should play a role in creating deterrent mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities of the past.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant movie, with brilliant writing, and brilliant acting that raises the race issue in a poignant way.
Just for fun, I’ll add Legally Blonde. I am concerned about the role of women in our profession. I think this movie shows that you have to look below your prejudices, presumptions, and biases to find out that the main character can be a really cutthroat lawyer. If the movie is able to convey that message because of how it is presented, because of who is in it, because it is funny and entertaining, then so be it.