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Drexel’s Great Leap: A First Look Inside the New Law School That Is Poised to Open Doors for Future Generations

by Daniel A. Cirucci

Fall 2005, Vol. 68, No. 3

If all goes according to plan, Philadelphia will soon have its first new law school in twenty-five years. But it won’t be just another law school. In fact, those behind the new venture promise that it won’t be like any other law school in the city or the state, and it will be like few if any in the entire nation.

The new Drexel University College of Law, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2006, promises to be a unique year-round operation strengthened by Drexel’s focus on science, technology and business and incorporating six-month supervised internships. As detailed by Drexel Senior Vice President and General Counsel Carl “Tobey” Oxholm III, Drexel’s approach means that law school students will be attending school continuously with breaks for internships at area businesses, law firms, public services agencies, government agencies and courts.

“We’re working with area businesses to create permanent ‘Drexel’ positions,” Oxholm said. “While the position will remain, the intern will change every six months. It’s good for the cooperating businesses and good for the students. For example, instead of simply teaching student business or technology law in a classroom, we will put those students in the world of business or technology on an ongoing, day-to-day basis.” Joseph Jacovini, chair of the Drexel Board of Trustees and chairman of Dilworth Paxson LLP, has termed this “vertical knowledge.” “After six months in one of these positions,” he said, “our students will have experienced the context of the law and seen how lawyers really work with their clients to help them make the practical decisions that affect their businesses in the context of an industry for which they will have some understanding.”

Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Andrew A. Chirls applauds that goal. “What has me most excited is the connection that the law school plans to have with our legal community, particularly through the co-op program. I’ve heard people at law firms and public interest organizations who are enthusiastic about making sure that the students get valuable placements. It helps those firms and organizations and it’s great for the students’ education,” Chirls said.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, herself a graduate of Drexel University, worked very closely with Oxholm in the earliest days, gathering regulations, articles and data about law schools, and helping to refine the approach that Drexel would take.

“I have always been of the mind that skills training is critical for lawyers, and that law schools should do more of it. Drexel’s co-op model is a perfect way to teach lawyering skills. And Tobey’s history with pro bono made it a natural fit,” she said.

“There are many aspects about the new teaching model Drexel is developing. I am particularly pleased that they are reaching out at the very start to establish links between their students and the profession, especially the minority and ethnic bar organizations. That way, they will learn from the older generations of lawyers what it truly means to be a member of a profession that is rich with traditions and values.”

The law school’s Web site, www.drexel.edu/law, confirms that even though the school is still eleven months from opening its doors, all of the city’s minority and ethnic bar associations have already agreed to welcome their students. Joseph J. Centeno, president of the Asian American Bar Association of the Delaware Valley and a partner with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, confirmed that any student at Drexel Law who asks will be allowed to join his association as a student member, will be invited to association events and will have a practicing attorney mentor through the association. “We are delighted to be asked to help teach law students about our profession,” said Centeno. “Law is more than just a business. It is a tradition and an ethic, and it is very important that the next generation of lawyers learns early on the full dimension of the profession. I also know that Tobey is committed to having a diverse student body at Drexel Law, and our association will do everything it can to help him accomplish that goal.”

Tapped by visionary Drexel President Constantine Papadakis to chair the law school’s development committee, Oxholm heads an eighteen-member university group spearheading the new initiative.

Papadakis, who sees higher education as a “great equalizer in American society,” said, “it’s very exciting to be involved with the birth of a new law school.” He added that the idea of a law school at Drexel has been growing for more than two years.

“Drexel is now among the top 100 universities in America granting doctoral degrees,” Papadakis noted. “Of these 100 universities, forty-eight percent have medical schools and sixty-one percent have law schools. We already have a medical school, so this is just a logical extension of our role.”

Charting a path for Drexel as a major force in the community, Papadakis assigned Oxholm to negotiate and oversee the 2002 merger of the Hahnemann schools of medicine, nursing and public health into Drexel’s education system. Today, Oxholm also holds the title of general counsel of Drexel University’s College of Medicine.

Both Papadakis and Oxholm see an ongoing connection with the law as part of Drexel’s overall expansion plan. Addressing a large group of lawyers recently, Papadakis noted that the university voluntarily adopted the principles and practices of the new Sarbanes-Oxley federal law even though it didn’t have to do so. “We are the first nonprofit in the area to take this step,” he explained. “We teach best practices in our College of Business, and we do best practices at our university.”

Oxholm pointed out that when word of the new law school got out on campus, the student newspaper editorialized: “What took you so long?” “It just makes sense,” Oxholm said, “because everything we do at Drexel has an increasing connection to the law—business, health care, engineering, technology, media arts and design. The CEOs who do best will be those who have been trained in the law.”

Oxholm said it also makes sense to incorporate into the law school’s curriculum the school/work co-op program that Drexel pioneered. He noted that while many law schools have internships and externships, they are limited in scope. There is currently only one co-op law school in the nation, and its internships are only three months long.

One of the organizations that has signed up to participate in the Drexel Law co-op program is Community Legal Services. “The idea of having six-month placements for law student interns is really exciting for Community Legal Services,” said CLS Executive Director Catherine C. Carr. “We find that interns need a lot of attention and training the first few months, and right when they are really effective, they leave. Having a Drexel student full time for six months will mean that we get real help. In a workplace where there are always too many clients with very compelling needs for assistance, this will be a real gift.” Lawyers in other nonprofits and law firms share that view.

What will be the other special strengths of the new law school? Papadakis said Drexel will “build on the resources we already have and answer the call of the market.”

“I think areas like health care, entrepreneurial business and intellectual property will be strong. They are the economic drivers of our region. Just in health care alone, biotechnology, new advances in medicine and elder law immediately come to mind. This is the future. This is where the needs are.”

“When I learned that Drexel University intended to start a law school, two quotations went through my mind,” said Judge Mark I. Bernstein of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. “The first was Oliver Wendell Holmes’ words, written in 1881 and referenced in every law school: ‘…the life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.’ The second were the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran: ‘On Children: You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.’ Our legal system faces unprecedented challenges from our swiftly changing communications, technology and medicine. These challenges are unprecedented in their complexity, their uncertainty and in the pace of their change. Our law schools must educate not for today but for the legal house of tomorrow, which we cannot now know or visit, not even in our dreams,” said Judge Bernstein. Noting that Drexel was right on target, he said he “look[s] forward with great anticipation and enthusiasm to the establishment of the Drexel University School of Law.”

Drexel also plans to have many of its upper-level courses taught by practicing Philadelphia lawyers. “We’ll have a tenured faculty, of course, but we intend to draw on the Philadelphia bar to share its abundant riches with us,” Oxholm said. “I know already that there are many nationally prominent lawyers who want to share their expertise with our students.”

“The Philadelphia region has excellent schools, but Drexel can bring added value to Philadelphia’s array,” said Jerome J. Shestack of WolfBlock, a past president of the American Bar Association. “Drexel’s eminence in the engineering area affords a curriculum that can be a natural haven for those interested in technology and intellectual property. Drexel’s plans include a faculty of the brightest and most innovative. The school will undoubtedly enhance the legal domain in Philadelphia and beyond,” said Shestack.

In many respects Oxholm envisions a law school without walls. “There will be no moat and drawbridge around this law school,” Oxholm explained. “The law school faculty will teach in other parts of the university and collaborate with the faculty in related fields. Our students will be able to take courses in business, arts management and public health, and we will urge students to pursue joint degrees. Ours will be integrated, practical learning—integrated with the university and the broader community.”

To hear Oxholm and others tell it, it all sounds wonderful. But starting a new law school is a big job. And quite a few obstacles still remain. Formal approval for the law school must first be granted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is anticipated by the end of this month. The school must hire an excellent faculty, and then enroll students who are able to go to many law schools, but are willing to come to Drexel even though it will not be accredited. The ABA’s accreditation process cannot begin until the school has completed its first academic year. This means that Drexel’s first three classes of students will be agreeing to attend an unaccredited law school. Drexel is targeting August 2008 for ABA accreditation, with Drexel’s first law school class graduating in May 2009, and Oxholm is confident this is achievable. “If Appalachian School of Law can be accredited, and it is, there is no possible way Drexel won’t meet the tests.”

What will make good students go to Drexel Law? Oxholm says they will get discounts so that their tuition will be on par with state schools such as Temple and Rutgers. Classes will be small, with the largest classes topping off at about sixty students, and the student-faculty ratio will be close to ten to one, promising an almost unique learning environment. When they graduate, all students will have at least one real-life experience in the law and one meaningful reference.

Plus, pro bono service will be mandatory for all students. The school plans to require that all J.D. students perform at least fifty hours of public service as a condition of graduating. The school’s motto—Scientia, Ars, Officium (Knowledge, Skill, Duty)—expresses what its Web site confirms: “We will do our best to introduce you to the lawyer’s professional obligation to help the poor and acquaint you with Philadelphia’s public interest and pro bono legal community. We want to make sure you have the experience of helping someone who could not otherwise afford to retain a lawyer.”

While Oxholm admits Drexel “has laid out an ambitious agenda and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” he said he’s been energized by the response the university has received from the legal community, the nonprofit and business community and others. And he adds that other area law schools have been “welcoming, helpful and cooperative.”

“I think people recognize that we want to expand the pie, not fight over what’s already here,” he explained. “There are many ways to approach the law. It is at its core a disciplined, focused way of approaching issues that will help people in all careers become successful. The law itself is very important today, and a legal education opens a great many doors of opportunity. We’re out to help open some more of those doors for future generations.”