Ethics Counsel on www.OKbar.org

Q & A with OCU Law Dean Couch

By Travis Pickens

Q. You have described your career (private practice, federal judge, law school dean) as an “arc.” What do you mean by that?

An arc brings to mind the shape and movement of a natural form. I look at my life and see that my work as a lawyer has followed a natural uninterrupted arc — beginning with my preparation as a law student, moving into work as a young and maturing trial lawyer, transitioning to the work of a judge for 13 years — and now a move into what could be the last section of the arc, my work as a law school dean and professor. Some might think I am suggesting a downward trajectory now, but no, I am describing a movement in the direction of a full circle. I am fortunate to return once again to school and help prepare another generation for the challenges and joys of what lies ahead.

Q. Not many lawyers leave the federal bench before they retire. What drew you to become the dean of the OCU School of Law?

When this opportunity came to me, I had been working as a judge for almost 13 years, and had enjoyed every minute. I was still constantly learning about how to be a judge, and had not considered leaving. When I began discussions with people at the school, however, I became immediately intrigued. My reaction made me recognize that a part of me was ready for new work and new challenges. I had a choice — I could cross the bridge or stay where I was. I chose to cross the bridge and have not looked back with regret, not even for a day. I do miss being around my wonderful colleagues on the federal bench, and some days I miss the tranquility and autonomy of the environment. But I am now whole-heartedly committed to a busy new world, and I am having a wonderful time! It has been a little like emerging from a secure and comfortable cave and coming out into a wild garden. It’s a colorful and complex world.

Q. As a judge, you have seen many lawyers practice before you. What are some of the common traits of the best lawyers?

I think being a great lawyer is all about love. A great lawyer loves justice. And the love of justice necessarily drives a lawyer toward important habits of mind and work, such as maintaining a constant and intense focus on details, on strategic options, on ethical obligations and on the overall interests a lawyer is called upon to serve. Great lawyers, young and old, view themselves above all as guardians of the rule of law. They make all decisions and all communications through that lens. Also, a great lawyer loves the facts, loves investigating and gathering the facts, and loves marshaling the facts. And a great lawyer loves to shape the dynamic mix of fact and legal principles into a just result. Great lawyers are resourceful and sophisticated problem solvers and love playing that role in service to others. It’s all about love.

Q. Why is a career in law still something to aspire to?

A career in law makes you part of an indispensable profession. You become someone who is essential to our democratic society, essential to maintaining a stable economy and essential to protecting human rights and dignity. Choosing to be a lawyer is also like giving yourself a treasure trove of gifts: an education that prepares you for a huge variety of work, a license that gives you a way to earn a decent living, a credential that carries some clout — and someday you may have interesting friends who ask you a lot of hard questions.

Q. How do you stay inspired as a lawyer, and now dean?

When I was younger and struggling with the troubles of day to day practice, I would sometimes go into the ceremonial courtroom in the federal courthouse and look up at the smiling face of Judge Lee West’s portrait on the wall. I always came away feeling that to be a lawyer — and a judge — is a great and joyful stroke of good fortune despite the occasional discouraging day. Actually, all the portraits in that room inspired me to stay focused and be tenacious. Now that I am in this busy law school environment, I find inspiration all around me. I talk with students. I read. I meet with faculty who are planning new programs. I visit classes and watch the learning process in action. And I surround myself with smart people
who care about the world.

Q. What is your philosophy of a great law school education and how is OCU School of Law endeavoring to practice that philosophy?

I fear this is going to be too long an answer, because a law school is so complex. But here goes…my list of must-haves for a great modern legal education:
• Rigorous courses taught by superb teachers dedicated to the incremental transformative nature of traditional law school teaching methods

• Rigorous courses taught by superb teachers dedicated to innovative teaching methods that prepare students for the realities of practicing law

• Rigorous writing and research instruction by superb teachers dedicated to student success

• Required courses on lawyering skills relevant to the way law is practiced now and how it will be practiced in the near future

• Ample opportunities for real-world experience through well-supervised clinics, externships and observations

• Mentors from the legal and business community who help students build their professional identities and provide meaningful connections to the world in which they will work

• Constant well-integrated emphasis on professionalism, ethics and leadership, from day one

• A culture of opportunity

• A culture of excellence

• A teaching culture that is highly interdisciplinary

• A teaching culture that welcomes and values the contributions of strong adjunct faculty members from the legal community

• A curriculum that effectively addresses the highly globalized nature of today’s practice of law

• An environment welcoming to a talented and diverse student body, faculty and staff

• Intellectual diversity throughout the curriculum

• An environment that fosters outreach into the world to solve problems, pro bono services to those in need and strong relationships with
the community

• An institutional identity that makes the school a player in the world — that is, not aloof but rather in the middle of the action.

Although this “list” may not yet constitute a “philosophy,” this is where I am right now in the evolution of my thinking about what makes a great law school. I must say — and I am at liberty to say since I am brand new here and cannot take the credit — that I have entered such a school. I am proud to be the dean of the Oklahoma City University School of Law. We are moving downtown to the heart of the action — literally and figuratively. We are an essential player in our community and our state, and I can see nothing but good things ahead for us.  

Valerie K. Couch
Dean and Professor of Law

Valerie Couch took the reins as dean of the Oklahoma City University School of Law on April 9, 2012. She is the school¹s 12th dean and first woman to hold that position. For 13 years, she served as a federal magistrate judge in the Western District of Oklahoma. Prior to her service on the bench, she worked for 16 years in private practice as a trial attorney with the Oklahoma City firm Hartzog Conger & Cason. She has served as president of the Oklahoma County Bar Association, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the Federal Bar Association and president of the William J. Holloway Jr. Inn of Court. She currently serves as a Trustee on the national board of the American Inns of Court in Washington, D.C. and as a Trustee on the Board of Trustees of the Oklahoma Bar Foundation. She taught law school as an adjunct teacher for many years and serves on the editorial board of the Federal Courts Law Review. She is married to Dr. Joe Couch, a clinical psychologist, and they have two sons:  Dan Couch, an attorney and member of the Oklahoma bar, and Ross Couch, who runs an independent business in Norman.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Travis Pickens serves as OBA ethics counsel. He is responsible for addressing ethics questions from OBA members, monitoring Diversion Program participants, teaching classes, speaking at continuing education programs and other law-related seminars and writing articles for The Oklahoma Bar Journal and other publications. A former litigator in private practice, he has served as co-chair of the Work/Life Balance Committee and as vice-chair of the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program Committee.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Dec.8, 2012 -- Volume 83, No. 33.

Travis Pickens is the OBA Ethics Counsel. He can be reached at ethics@okbar.org