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THE SIMPSON LEGACY / LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Trial & Error: FOCUS SHIFTS TO A JUSTICE SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS : Weighing the Necessity of Change : How One Case May Reshape Criminal Justice in America : Schools of Law / "O.J. will be on trial in law schools for many years to come."

October 08, 1995

The Simpson case is over at the Downtown Criminal Courts Building, but its battles will be fought over and over again in the nation's law schools.

At Harvard, law professor Charles R. Nesson plans to continue using "O.J. as a major source of material for evidence courses, taking advantage of the extensive video coverage of the trial."

Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein intends to go a step further--developing and marketing an all-Simpson legal course using taped trial excerpts to demonstrate the rules of evidence, courtroom ethics and lawyering techniques.

"It's been the world's biggest publicity binge for the law and the courts and lawyers," said Rothstein, who had to turn away more than 100 eager students from his Simpson-based evidence course last spring. "O.J. will be on trial in law schools for many years to come."

Less clear is the looming impact of the so-called "Trial of the Century" on the student bodies of the nation's law schools, which already are reeling from a steady decline in applicants over the last four years.

In the late 1980s, the popular television series "L.A. Law" was credited with helping trigger a strong upswing in applications to law schools. But experts have mixed opinions about whether the massive public interest in the long-running daily television drama, "The People vs. Simpson," will help spark a similar surge.

"I think it will inspire a lot of people to go to law school because it has made law seem dramatic and exciting," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.

Yet others worry that the deep-seated cynicism the trial inspired in many people could result in a further downturn in law school applications.

"To the extent that the Simpson case sends a message that it's really not about law and legal systems but it's about how much money you can produce, that may be discouraging for people who pursue law for idealistic reasons," said Southwestern University School of Law Dean Leigh H. Taylor, chairman of the Law School Admission Council.

After peaking at 94,000 in 1991, law school applications have dropped steadily, according to the national council. Downturns in the economy and in job prospects for young lawyers--their median starting salary declined $3,000 between 1992 and 1994--are largely to blame for the decline, experts say.

But since the Simpson case first hit the airwaves, the number of students taking the law school admission test and attending recruitment fairs has declined even more precipitously. In June, 7% fewer students took the admission test than in the previous June.

"Right now, we don't know what to make of anything," said council spokeswoman Jana Cardoza.

For some in law school, the Simpson case has convinced them to steer away from practicing criminal law.

"You'd have to face a lot of ethical questions if you go into criminal law," said Melanie Petross, a second-year USC law student. "Johnnie Cochran was asked on Oprah if he'd take a case if he knew the client was guilty.

"I don't really think I can deal with those kinds of questions personally. I wouldn't want to be in an ethical dilemma."

But some experts say that the key role lawyers such as Cochran played in the Simpson trial could serve as a role model for prospective minority students.

"It might embolden or encourage minority applicants who have now seen minority lawyers clearly holding their own in this kind of national spotlight," said Philip Shelton, executive director of the Law School Admission Council. "That's hopeful because there is the fear in legal education that the anti-affirmative action noises, including very specific action by the UC Board of Regents in California, may discourage minority persons from believing law schools are still interested in aggressively recruiting them."

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