TU Law celebrates a century of legal excellence - The University of Tulsa
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TU Law celebrates a century of legal excellence

Tulsa Central High School where TU Law School was once conductedThe University of Tulsa College of Law has been educating students since 1923. Founded by a group of Tulsa attorneys, the Tulsa Law School, as it was then known, was first located in downtown Tulsa at the former Central High School with the law library housed at the Tulsa County Courthouse. Faculty members were Tulsa attorneys who practiced during the day and taught students in the evening.

In 1925, under the leadership of acting President Franklin Dill, The University of Tulsa board of trustees voted to bring the Tulsa Law School under the university umbrella. In addition to night classes for working professionals, TU offered a six-year program where students could earn both a bachelor of arts and law degree – a program that continues to this day.

The 1950s and 1960s brought significant progress: The law library, classrooms, instructors, and administrative offices were brought together for the first time, and the first full-time faculty members were hired. The school received accreditation by the American Bar Association in 1953 and was admitted to membership in the Association of American Law Schools in 1966. At that time, the name of the institution was changed to the College of Law, reflecting its status within the university.

In 1973, the College of Law moved to its current location on The University of Tulsa campus. In 2000, TU Law opened a new state-of-the-art law library known as the Mabee Legal Information Center, a stunning addition to the college’s infrastructure, which stands as a testament to its commitment to providing students with state-of-the-art resources.

M. Thomas Arnold served as acting dean in 1994 and 1995 and finds “the Mabee,” as its affectionally known among students, a reflection of a TU Law education. “The Mabee Legal Information Center exemplifies the College of Law as a whole: modern, open, welcoming, conducive to learning, service-oriented, and able to adjust with the times,” said Arnold.

In 2002, the college renovated and remodeled its model courtroom, now known as the Price & Turpen Courtroom. An important aspect of legal education, The University of Tulsa College of Law’s moot court simulates appellate court proceedings, allowing students to argue cases and hone their oral advocacy skills. These exercises mirror real-world legal practice, offering students the opportunity to construct compelling legal arguments and present them before panels of mock judges.

Experiential Learning at its Finest

In the past two decades, faculty in The University of Tulsa’s College of Law have invested in legal education through experiential learning programs that directly serve the greater Tulsa region through the establishment of several legal programs including the Tulsa Immigrant Resource Network, the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic, and the B.C. Franklin Legal Clinic.

Tulsa Immigrant Resource Network (TIRN)
TIRN provides direct service to Tulsa’s noncitizen population. It has operated since 2008 as the second incubator program in the United States and is separately funded through a generous grant from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

In addition to direct services, TIRN, often with the assistance of law clinic students, provides education on immigration law and process to the community at large and to providers to the noncitizen population. TIRN also accepts advocacy projects that benefit the noncitizen community at large in the Tulsa area.

After graduation, students can apply for one of TIRN’s two-year legal fellowships. The TIRN fellows are recent law school alumni licensed to practice law and may represent clients in immigration and nonimmigration proceedings such as family law matters.

“Our clinics are the gold standard in legal education,” said Janet K. Levit, who served as dean from 2007 to 2015. “In an era where the path to citizenship seems like an insurmountable journey, our work in immigration stands as an essential beacon, guiding individuals through a maze of complexities and offering a path toward a better future.”

Terry West Civil Legal Clinic
Supported by the Sarkeys Foundation, the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic addresses access to justice for marginalized communities in Tulsa, with a particular focus on the intersection of legal needs within these communities. While serving individual clients, students engage more broadly with the justice system and structural access to justice barriers. The clinic explores mechanisms of advocacy, including court observations, fact-finding and reporting, impact litigation, and legislative advocacy. Students may also create “know-your-rights” materials and presentations.

The seminar and clinic work teach lawyering skills and explore the ethical, practical, theoretical, and strategic issues around legal advocacy and the lived experiences of individuals from marginalized communities. Students explore issues of professional responsibility, the role of the justice system in the lives of marginalized communities, their role as lawyers within this system, and ways to advocate inside and outside of the courtroom.

B.C. Franklin Legal Clinic
The B.C. Franklin Legal Clinic launched in fall 2021 with generous support from the Sanford and Irene Burnstein Family Foundation and The University of Tulsa’s College of Law alumni. The clinic serves north Tulsa residents and businesses. Prior to the launch, TU Law clinical faculty and students met with community leaders, including clergy, businesspeople, service providers, and attorneys, to determine legal needs and services available. Subsequently, students in the launch semester did an in-depth assessment with residents and entrepreneurs to hear about their legal needs.

In the clinic seminar, students delve into the history of north Tulsa and the impact of that history on today’s community. They study the Tulsa Race Massacre and the attempts to obtain justice for the survivors and descendants of the victims. These discussions allow students to gain an understanding of the role of the justice system in the lives of marginalized communities, the implicit bias and systemic racism inherent in the structure in which lawyers work, the challenges of public interest lawyering, and the balance between community education and individual representation.

“My classmates’ and my legal confidence soared because of hands-on practice and implementation,” said Nicole Mathews (JD ’23). “We didn’t just learn from theory and observation through the B.C. Franklin Legal Clinic, we learned from real people and real experiences, impacting lives by our decisions.”

Notable Alumni: Champions of Justice

TU Law alumni network boasts luminaries who impact students through their in-person mentoring, career example, or legacy. Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Dana Kuehn (JD ’96) embodies this spirit through her thoughtful legal decisions. Her rulings in cases involving community well-being, environmental protection, and social justice have positively affected the lives of countless individuals. Her dedication to upholding justice and preserving the rule of law underscores the institution’s commitment to nurturing principled leaders who make a difference in their communities.

Fern Holland (JD ’96) stands out as a shining example of the college’s mission in action. After leaving Tulsa, she joined the Peace Corps and later served with the United States Agency for International Development, investigating human rights abuses under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Her tragic death while advocating for justice in Iraq serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of the work carried out by the college’s alumni.

She is remembered to this day. “The Fern L. Holland Award stands as a beacon, igniting the spirits of collegiate women who embody Fern’s unyielding passion for shaping a better world and inspiring us all to carry forward Fern’s legacy of making an indelible mark on the tapestry of society,” said Lyn Entzeroth, who served as dean from 2015 to 2021.

Building on a Century of Impact

The College of Law’s centennial celebration is not only a commemoration of its history but a recognition of the profound impact it has had on the legal landscape and society at large. From its early days to the present, the college’s commitment to nurturing the best legal minds, promoting community engagement, and fostering a culture of excellence continues to shape the future of the legal profession.

“As we celebrate our centennial, we honor the legacy of those who’ve come before us while shaping the path for those who will follow, ensuring the next century of legal excellence,” said former Dean Martin Belsky, whose tenure straddled the millennium (1995-2004).

Person leaning on railing
Dean Oren Griffin

At the beginning of its second century, the college remains dedicated to preparing students to navigate the complex legal challenges of tomorrow with the same passion and determination
that have defined its first 100 years. Dean Oren Griffin, who has led TU Law since January 2021, emphasized three foci moving into the next 100 years: preparing students for the emerging
global economy; creating a platform to support faculty through their research and writing; and drawing attention to restorative justice and the challenges of our time.

“The legal profession provides an opportunity to create civil, organized debate and discussion on complex issues,” said Griffin. “Our commitment to cultivating the best legal minds is reflected in every graduate who steps into the world, armed with the skills, ethics, and determination to make a meaningful impact. We do not live to practice law; we practice law so that we can live.”