Queens College Law School: blazing a trail in public interest law

The vestiges of a basketball hoop deck one wall of the dean's office. Howard Lesnick, the curriculum planner for this law school, works in a former elementary classroom, where a sketch of Don Quixote not incidentally overlooks volumes of jurisprudence and reams of computer print outs. The atmosphere throughout the building pulsates - gritty, spontaneous, flexible.

These are just the outward signs that Queens College Law School, a branch of the City University of New York, is a long way from the alma maters of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, and Warren Burger.

First, it is literally a long way. This law school temporarily occupies what had been public-school quarters in Bayside, Queens, a settled suburb about 45 minutes outside Manhattan. The neighborhood has garden apartments, modest single-family dwellings with preschoolers racing tricycles every few driveways, a soda shop where high-schoolers mingle in the late afternoon - but no ivory tower in sight. The law school is currently raising funds for a permanent move to a renovated building at the Flushing campus of Queens College, but the move is not scheduled until January 1986.

Second, the school's purpose distances it from the traditional goal of a law school. The most nurtured discipline here is public interest law - ''Law in the service of human needs,'' as the school's motto reads. Public interest law, as distinct from law serving sectors like business and government, is one of the more constructive legacies of the 1960s. In two decades, it has gradually earned credibility in the legal community.

For Dean Charles Halpern, Queens College is the latest demonstration of a personal commitment to public interest law.

While he is no stranger to the patrician academies (his undergraduate degree is from Harvard and his law degree from Yale), Dean Halpern's belief in what he calls ''representing the unrepresented'' has led his career down roads less traveled by.

In 1969 he left the comforts of private practice with an established Washington law firm, Arnold and Porter, to found and direct the Center for Law and Social Policy, a trailblazing institute for public interest law. Having subsequently taught at Georgetown and Stanford universities law schools, he was appointed CUNY law school's first dean in 1981.

When the doors opened last year, Charles Halpern says, no one, including the dean, knew what to expect. This was New York's second state-supported law school. (The first is in Buffalo.) It was one of a handful, nationally, staking its reputation on public interest law. Its facility was makeshift. In most aspects, from grading systems to curriculum design, it broke law-school conventions.

''We did wonder, 'Is anybody going to show up?' '' the dean recalls today. The answer was affirmative. A total of 1,100 applied for 150 first-year student positions. There was also an overwhelming response to the call for a dozen faculty members.

The backgrounds of incoming students have been unlike those of standard law- school students. The school considers but does not emphasize, as do most other law schools, an applicant's grade-point average and Law School Aptitude Test scores. As a result, Queens accepts individuals of widely diverse prior experience, ages (the median now is 29, although the range spans three generations), and ethnic backgrounds. Women and minorities figure prominently in the student population. With in-state tuition at an annual $3,100 and out-of-state at $4,100 - about half that of most law schools - Queens is also more financially accessible than many comparable schools.

Most of those applying for positions, like Charles Halpern, bring solid credentials from traditional law schools.

The actual teaching of law is the third aspect that separates this law school from the norm. Halpern refers to the book and popular television series ''The Paper Chase,'' based on its author's student years at Harvard Law School, as an archetype of the ''old school'' approach. In ''The Paper Chase,'' the taskmaster , Professor Kingsfield, wrings excellence from a throng of students by combining sarcasm and Socrates. The Socratic method used in classic law education has a student prove, or fail to prove, his knowledge of a case during cross-examination by the professor in front of the throng. Pressure and competition abound.

Not so at Queens, according to students, teachers, and administrators here. Students like Nita Savitz, a former schoolteacher-lobbyist who is a grandmother, and Donald Barr, a young former actor, testify that the workload can be heavy and the expectations high. At the same time, they say, there is a strong sense of comaraderie. Faculty members are virtually on call most hours of the school day (also available through the school's unusual ''house'' system that subdivides the larger class), and there is genuine pleasure in learning the law here.

''I don't think people learn very well when they are afraid,'' Halpern observes. The quality of human interaction has top priority, he explains, whether in matters of how lawyers treat clients, how ethics influence professional decisions, or how to build administration-to-faculty, faculty-to-student, and student-to-student respect.

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