UCLA dean urges caring approach to law. Susan Prager advocates teaching alternative ways to settle disputes

Susan Prager believes that close family bonds, the idea of sharing between husband and wife, and a commitment to caring about others can be the key to professional success. She is serious, thoughtful, and intense in her devotion to her discipline. And she is highly articulate and authoritative in matters relating to it.

Mrs. Prager is also a devoted wife and mother of two daughters -- a seven-year-old and a six-month-old -- whose care and welfare she equates favorably in importance with her career.

Susan Westerberg Prager holds the prestigious position of dean of the School of Law at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). One of only a handful of woman law deans in the nation, she has held this post since 1982, when she was still in her 30s.

In 1986, this gentle, attractive woman will become president of the Association of American Law Schools, made up of law professors and deans devoted to improving legal education in the United States.

Her specialty in domestic relations and family law seems to qualify her to guide a new breed of budding lawyers who are being readied for expanding demands in client services. Dean Prager says that today's young counselors must be responsive, among other things, to a range of dispute resolutions that may or may not include going to court; and they must cope with questions of professional ethics which a post-Watergate society has placed on them.

Interestingly, Susan Prager's personal ideas about having husband and wife share domestic duties carries over into her professional philosophy. For instance, in the area of child placement in divorce cases, she is a firm believer in joint custody.

``Joint custody now is seen as more of the norm,'' she explains in an interview. ``It's a built-in reason why parents have to deal with one another.''

Prager sees this solution as a way to simplify many divorce settlements and eliminate much of the bitterness between estranged spouses.

``[Before joint custody] it was all or nothing. If you wanted the children, you had to win. . . . Now both parents have significant input,'' she points out.

But the UCLA law dean would like to see the whole idea of sharing take shape long before a crisis -- such as divorce, death, or business dissolution -- occurs. Among other things, she believes spouses can successfully support each other in their careers and family responsibilities. And she and her husband, Jim -- a corporate counsel in Los Angeles -- do just that.

``People ask me, `How do you do it?' '' That is, how does she juggle career and family? ``And I tell them, `I don't,' '' she says with humorous modesty.

``But I have a terrific husband. When he's with the kids, he gives them a lot of attention. As for me, frankly, if I didn't have these children, I would probably be thinking about work most of the time. I think they help me get my mind off my work,'' she explains.

Prager's commitment to sharing and caring carries over into the areas of legal ethics and the often-debated lawyer-client relationship.

She is skeptical about how effective the formal classroom teaching of morality and ethics might be. And she points out that little of this is done today within the law-school curricula -- after a flurry of attention a decade ago in the wake of Watergate, when most of those accused of misconduct were lawyers.

``I think, perhaps, the thing we can do -- and what we are trying to do -- is to work with each student to see if we can't develop as fully as possible in those three years [of law school] a sense of responsibility . . . and what it means,'' Prager says. She sees ethics as something that develops within students who are being taught an honest, responsible approach to the law.

Although she is vitally concerned about lawyers' ethical responsibility to society, she also stresses loyalty to clients.

Some see these two commitments as inconsistent. And many trial lawyers have insisted that if they heed a code of conduct -- such as the one recently adopted by the American Bar Association that advocates ``blowing the whistle'' on a client who is lying -- they could be compromising the lawyer's position as a vigorous advocate.

Dean Prager sees no great dilemma. ``I think we need to have a more accepted understanding that when lawyers lie to other lawyers [or to the court] . . . those problems should be called to the attention of authorities,'' she holds.

At the same time, law schools must ``underscore to students that it is very important that the client feel [a lawyer's] commitment and caring,'' she says.

Dean Prager is a strong advocate of clinical legal education that places students in real-life courtroom and advocacy situations. She explains that ``traditional legal education tried to strip out emotion and personal problems from legal problems.''

``I think a lot of the negative feelings about lawyers are because clients often feel that a lawyer is compromising too much or not caring enough about them or really is more loyal to other lawyers than to them,'' the dean says.

Prager says she and many of her colleagues are becoming increasingly concerned over the general feeling in society that the legal process is the only route to resolving problems.

``We are a culture where individual rights are important and should continue to be important,'' she explains. ``But should [the courts] be the solution to everything? Or should we be moving in the direction of trying to create more private -- truly private -- resolutions of some disputes?''

Here again, Prager believes that ``sharing'' and ``caring'' are the key elements in finding answers.

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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