Learn Law. Live Justice.
This mission guides the curriculum, hands-on learning opportunities and, ultimately, graduates’ career paths. It speaks to the culture at Cleveland State University’s College of Law (CSULAW).
“What makes our law school distinctive is that we not only teach the law, but we also emphasize how important it is to use your law degree to make a difference in the world,” says Dean Lee Fisher. “It’s about understanding that a law degree is in essence a leadership degree, and with it comes a responsibility to take the skills you have learned to help make people’s lives better.”
The Law School celebrates 125 years of rich social justice and civil rights history as a “living justice law school” that prepares students to be lawyers and leaders. The iconic, student-centered law school is ranked the top part-time law school in Ohio by U.S. News & World Report and the top public law school in northern Ohio, along with earning national accolades in 12 specialty areas.
The law school includes a nationally recognized Center for Cybersecurity and Data Privacy and Global Space Law Center, and a renowned Center for Health Law & Policy, and Criminal Justice Center. “That is just the beginning,” Fisher says, adding that the law school is the most robust, reliable talent pipeline for Northeast Ohio’s legal community.
Graduates have been at the head of major social movements such as women’s suffrage, and the school has admitted women since its founding in 1897. It also was one of the state’s first law schools to admit African American students. The school created one of the country’s first solo practice incubators and the region’s first master’s degree in legal studies. The school launched one of the country’s first leadership programs for law students with the P. Kelly Tompkins Leadership in Law Program.
But the sleeves-up, passion for justice and grassroots programs that give students tangible inroads for making a difference is what really makes the iconic law school a progressive learning culture.
“What makes us stand out is the school’s relationship with the community,” says Kimberly Kendall Corral (’12), an attorney in private practice and adjunct professor who teaches about post-conviction remedies. “It’s a practical, hands-on, high-quality legal education because students participate in clinics and externships and practicums. Before they become practicing attorneys, students can be in a position to provide relief, guidance and counsel to those who are most affected by social injustice. It’s motivating, inspiring and instills a sense of solemnity about the seriousness of their position as attorneys.”
Corral points out that the Law School’s graduates are in positions of influence throughout Northeast Ohio.
“The Law School is in a unique position of educating a substantial volume of leadership in the community, particularly in criminal justice, and students are in a unique position to make tremendous change,” she says.
Professor Robert J. Triozzi, co-director of the Law School Criminal Justice Center, notes that the vast majority of criminal justice practitioners in this region come from the Law School — judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
“Our students come in with a degree of passion, and we create greater opportunities for students to get a very well-rounded education in criminal law and real-world experience,” he adds.
Here is a snapshot of how CSU Law positions its students and graduates to lead the way in social justice, criminal law, business and the community at-large:
Seeking Social Justice
The Law School’s Criminal Justice Center is rooted in advancing reform that makes a difference in the system. “If you combine students’ passion for these issues with real-life opportunities they gain here, a lot of exciting things happen,” Professor Robert J. Triozzi, co-director of the Criminal Justice Center, says, relating that the Pretrial Justice Clinic has doubled in size during the four semesters it has been in place.
Aside from the classroom, students participating in the clinic are in court daily. “They are getting a bird’s-eye view of what the system is like and have opportunities to work on all levels,” Triozzi explains. “It’s great for our students, our system, our people and defendants that do not otherwise have this level of advocacy.”
Students meet with individuals prior to pre-trial hearings, listen to their concerns and develop skills to advocate for them in the system.
The Pardon, Clemency and Expungement Clinic operates at the other end of the criminal justice system, explains Associate Dean/Professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich. The Law School works in partnership with Ohio’s Expedited Pardon Program as part of a statewide network. “The program reaches out into our community and makes people aware of opportunities for second chances so they can move forward with their lives,” he explains. “The clinic helps people navigate their options to get clemency, a pardon or to have their records sealed so they can regain their footing in life. And, we are evolving into a full-fledged reentry clinic, so our students are working on pardon applications.”
Overall, the Criminal Justice Center is focused on learning by doing — and making an impact. “In addition to advancing the career interests they are passionate about and addressing criminal justice issues of our day, we look at how we can make the criminal justice system better,” Triozzi says. “That is what it means to learn law and live justice, and at the same time our students are learning to be professionals in the community, the court system and improving outcomes.”
Joining Pop-Up Practicums
From attending meetings and writing memos for the Ohio Rules Commission to problem-solving issues in the area of restorative justice, CSULAW’s Pop-Up Practicums invite students to join the faculty’s advocacy efforts. “They participate in projects that are works-in-progress and engage in issues of the moment,” says Professor Triozzi.
Triozzi shares how he was preparing a proposal related to mental health diversion and consulted with students on the issue.
Attorney Kim Kendall Corral ’12, dedicated a Pop-Up Practicum to seeking post-conviction relief for Anthony Starr, who spent more than three decades incarcerated for a brutal attack and rape and maintained innocence the entire time. During the practicum, Corral and CSULAW students argued the conviction was due to junk science, hidden witness statements, improper trials and an unconstitutional search. The victim, whom Starr never met, claimed she was 90% sure her ex-husband was the attacker.
Students prepared a 221-page application to the Cuyahoga County Conviction Integrity Unit and sought other avenues for relief, as the practicum was held during the pandemic shutdown.
“Professor Corral’s course is a prime example of why I created Pop-Up Practicums — so that our students and faculty could respond to relevant issues in real time,” says Lee Fisher, dean and Joseph C. Hostetler-BakerHostetler Chair in Law at CSULAW.
Advocating for Equality
The Equality Ohio Legal Clinic is the brainchild of CSULAW alumna Maya Simek ’10, who formed the practice with Alana Jochum. It serves Ohioans who are within 300% of the federal poverty level. Alumna Leslie Johns ’14
joined the team, and the clinic involves CSULAW students through externships and fellowships.
“When you talk about ‘learn law, live justice,’ this is it,” says Jochum. “This is the vision of graduates realized. Maya saw the need, and we are really grateful for the school for hosting us in this.”
The clinic is housed inside CSULAW and taps into a pipeline of students who are pursuing social justice advocacy. “There is such an urgent need here,” Jochum says. The freestanding and independent clinic is funded through grants by the Cleveland Foundation and Gund Foundation.
“Our physical office space is at CSULAW due to the school’s support and belief in our program and work, and that it aligns with learn law, live justice.”
Leading the Way
Lawyers naturally evolve into board and community leadership roles. But historically, law schools have not had a deliberate curricular focus on attaining these skills. CSULAW was one of the first law schools to recognize there is more to the practice than technical expertise. “We want students to learn to be wise counselors and effective leaders,” says Kelly Tompkins, ’81, a leader-in-residence, chair of the law school board of visitors and senior advisor at Dix & Eaton.
A 1981 CSULAW graduate, Tompkins is an engaged mentor and supporter, believing in the “but for” argument. “But for the education I received at Cleveland State’s law school, there was no way I would have had the professional and business success I have experienced in my career,” he says. He was the executive vice president and COO of Cleveland Cliffs and RPM International’s executive vice president and CFO. At both companies, he served as chief legal officer.
Through the P. Kelly Tompkins Leadership and Law Program, students learn to work in cross-functional teams, make strategic decisions, tackle ethical issues and manage common business obstacles such as difficult personnel situations.
Tompkins co-teaches a leadership course with Dean Fisher. “It’s hands-on and interactive,” Tompkins says, explaining how the course invites CSULAW graduates to present a critical leadership challenge or decision to the group. The class interviews leaders. They write a case study, and “we do not give them the punchline of the leaders’ decisions.”
Opening Doors of Opportunity
In the early 1970s, late CSULAW Professor Ann Aldrich started a student recruitment program at historically Black colleges and universities in the south. Aldrich was the law school’s first tenured woman faculty member and the first woman federal Ohio judge — an inspiring professional who brought on board a number of promising students. That included Judge Patricia Ann Blackmon ’75, who retired in February 2021 from the Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals in Cleveland, where she served since 1991. She was the first Black woman elected as a judge on a state court of appeals in Ohio and served five judicial terms.
Blackmon earned her law degree at CSULAW in 1975 and served as Cleveland’s chief prosecutor, the first night prosecutor and assistant director of the Victims/Witness Program.
“I was able to attend law school through the Legal Career Opportunities Program (LCOP), where they look at the whole quality of the person — not just GPA and test scores — and what struck me is that you might think that by now a program like this would not be necessary. Dean Fisher said, ‘It’s the need that counts,’” Blackmon relates.
Dean Fisher established the Judge Ann Aldrich/Judge Patricia Ann Blackmon Scholarship Fund as part of the school’s 125th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of LCOP. “Judge Blackmon is an example of someone who, against all odds, not only went to law school but became one of the most respected members of the Ohio Judiciary,” Fisher says. “I want our students to know that no matter what ZIP code where they grew up, our law school is a place where you can realize your dream.”
The scholarship benefits LCOP students, who demonstrate perseverance and promise for success — just like Blackmon. “Judge Aldrich noticed there were no Black students, and she said, ‘This can’t be,’ and she fought for change. It takes someone like Judge Aldrich and Dean Fisher with the imagination to make this happen.”