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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2008

COMMENTARY
Concern for others key to law school's mission

By Jeanne Mariani-Belding

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Avi Soifer | dean, university of Hawai'i-Manoa william S. richardson school of law.

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THIS WEEK

Editorial and Opinion Editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding puts Cliff Slater, a founder of Stop Rail Now and chairman of www.HonoluluTraffic.com, on The Hot Seat for a live blog chat Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. at www.Honoluluadvertiser.com/opinion

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Each week Editorial and Opinion Editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding hosts The Hot Seat, our opinion-page blog that brings in elected leaders and people in the news and lets you ask the questions during a live online chat.

On The Hot Seat last week was Avi Soifer, dean of the University of Hawai'i's William S. Richardson School of Law.

Here is an excerpt from that Hot Seat session. To see the full conversation, go to The Hot Seat blog at www.honoluluadvertiser.com/opinion and click on "The Hot Seat." (Names of questioners are screen names given during our online chat.)

Andy in Kailua: What is the role/responsibility of the law school in our community?

Avi Soifer: We have many different roles, ranging from extensive public-interest work through outreach programs that involve other disciplines as well as law on training the leaders of the near future both in the craft of lawyering and in the concern for others that is central to our mission.

The scholarship and teaching of our first-rate faculty truly serves Hawai'i in multiple ways, and effectively brings Hawai'i to the world.

Ladyluck: What do you think can be done to promote better voter turnout and more civic engagement? Does the law school have any type of community outreach plan or program?

Soifer: We do not leave such vital matters entirely to luck. We have symposia ourselves or co-sponsored on important matters for the voters all the time. For example, we are co-sponsoring a program on ConCon with the League of Women Voters and the Hawai'i Institute for Public Affairs on the morning of Sept. 6 at the Capitol.

Lisa: Do you think we need more emphasis in schools (particularly high school) to teach our students about voting and the democratic process? It seems that our youth is a little uninterested or maybe uninformed.

Soifer: We are very much involved in pipeline work with various public schools.

For example, we have partnered closely with Farrington High School and Anuenue in teaching street law and helping to develop citizenship and understanding of legal matters in a practical way. We also help judge mock trials and We the People. Recently, in fact, a few of our students and a faculty member helped create a curriculum for teaching free speech issues that won a national award.

Our students did a Street Law program at Olomana Youth Correctional Facility, along with Judge James Burns, who is helping out at the law school now that he has aged out of the judiciary.

Our students really do function as role models for the next generation through these and other programs.

Jo: From a legal standpoint, I'm just wondering if the teachers' union has a valid point in not complying with the contract (drug testing) that they signed with the state?

Soifer: Privacy is important and specifically protected in Hawai'i's Constitution, but this is a knotty issue that several members of the faculty and student body have been writing about with more care than I could possibly supply here.

As someone who still teaches and writes about constitutional law, I find this an intriguing issue involving group versus individual rights as well as other important matters.

Tina: What is the current makeup of the law school? Are there more students enrolled from the Mainland or more local students? What criteria does the UH use to enroll law students? Is it competitive?

Soifer: We get approximately 75 percent of our applications from out of state, but we enroll about that number from Hawai'i because we proudly are Hawai'i's law school. Our admissions process involves reading the files much more than at most law schools, and it is a student and faculty committee that does all that hard work under the skilled and sensitive direction of Dean Tochiki.

They really figure out somehow who the right people are for our community, and for the future, and they do not go as heavily by the numbers as do most schools. Because of our small size, however, we are still among the most selective in the nation.

Students have to take the Law School Admissions Test, and we look at their academic achievements, but we also consider leadership ability, motivation, integrity, diversity and promise.

We manage year after year to enroll an exceptional group of students who look out for each other and come up with innovative ways to serve the public and to improve the law school. I could say that we empower them, but they come with plenty of power and we encourage them to use it, honed and focused, by becoming skilled in law.

William: What curriculum and programs do you have that would attract law school candidates to the William S. Richardson School of Law as opposed to other law schools? How does the Richardson School of Law stand in respect to other law schools nationally?

Soifer: Our particular strengths, in addition to the practical training I have mentioned already, include our extensive program in Pacific and Asian Legal Studies. There is no ranking for such a program, but we clearly lead the way with our strength and expertise in the law of China, Japan and much of the rest of Southeast Asia.

We feature unique mini-courses taught by visiting faculty from across the Pacific, as well as a wonderful January term bonus program that offers star teachers and unique course offerings. We are also able to attract United States Supreme Court justices and very distinguished judges from other countries who spend a week with us each year and get to teach and meet, and often paddle and otherwise engage with our students.

Our Environmental Law Program recently won the national award from the ABA, and it is very much involved in the struggle to preserve our beautiful, fragile surroundings. This program like the Pacific and Asia Program offers a special certificate, and approximately 10 percent of the graduating class earns one of those two certificates.

We also have a close working relationship with the Shidler College of Business including co-taught and cross-listed classes, and many of our graduates also earn an MBA. We have built up our business curriculum considerably and we also emphasize intellectual property.

We are particularly proud of our still relatively new Native Hawaiian Law Center, which is doing outreach to the community as well as teaching crucially important courses and hosting symposia and workshops open to the entire community, including addressing comparative indigenous issues across the globe.

Stewart: I'm considering going to law school. Can you tell me what would be the "value" of a UH law degree and what sort of salaries can grads expect? Also, what is the most popular area of law that students are interested in?

Soifer: The main value of a legal education probably is that it prepares a graduate to do significant work within his or her community, in a vast array of different areas.

In fact, a number of our graduates never practice law as such and yet they repeatedly tell us that this training proved invaluable in careers in such realms as the arts, business, military service, nonprofits and government service.

Those of our recent graduates who decide to stay in Hawai'i though there is great demand for such well-trained and culturally fluent people around the world do not make as much in salary as their beginning counterparts in the largest cities, but they do get to see the light of day, unlike many of those pressured law firm associates elsewhere. Even our biggest law firms are more civilized and more humane than in most places.

To be specific, depending on whether a graduate chooses to do public service or private practice work, the salary range right after law school runs from the low $40,000 range to twice that amount or more.

Of course, some of our graduates do choose to practice law in places such as New York City, Tokyo or Los Angeles and they can make twice that amount even when they are only starting.

I am pleased to report that year after year, well over 90 percent of our graduates have found employment within six months of graduation, soon after they finish the bar examination.

There is no single area that seems to be most popular, but it is worth noting that we are among the nation's leaders in our students obtaining judicial clerkships, which are both prestigious and a wonderful way to continue one's legal education while working on real cases with a judge.

Reach Jeanne Mariani-Belding at jmbelding@honoluluadvertiser.com.