- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A growing demand for lawyers with backgrounds in Native American legal studies has kept Indian enrollment steady or rising at the state’s law schools, officials said.

“It’s easy to tell the change of focus driving that demand over time,” said Professor Casey Ross-Petherick, who heads the Oklahoma City University School of Law American Indian Law and Sovereignty Center. “Ten years ago, when State Question 712 was on the ballot, we had a whole lot more students interested in gaming law.

“Now we’re seeing more students interested in business diversification issues, people who want to go back to their tribes and help them develop their interests and ventures,” she said. “The topics ebb and flow, but the demand keeps rising.”

The University of Oklahoma College of Law regularly tops the lists of Native American enrollments, according to the Law School Admission Council, with about 10 percent of each class of incoming law students self-identified as tribal citizens. The OCU School of Law follows close behind, along with the University of Tulsa, The Journal Record (http://bit.ly/1wKC7fW ) reported.

Other school heads agreed with Ross-Petherick that the value of Indian legal studies has grown with the complexity of multicultural relations in the United States, and more broadly, among indigenous people around the world. Popular topics include environmental resources such as water rights and the gaming industry, for example, as well as any area of state and federal law that might overlap tribal jurisdictions, such as adoption and same-sex marriages. The American Bar Association has several committees for tribal courts and tax issues as well.

Law school representatives stopped short of saying they develop degree programs with marketing in mind, but they said their schools acknowledge demand and build on it. The OU College of Law, for example, hosts an annual symposium on tribal sovereignty in conjunction with the American Indian Law Review, the oldest such specialty law journal in the country. And tribes regularly make large contributions to better serve their citizens - the Chickasaw Nation last year made a gift to the University of Tulsa law school to endow scholarships for students interested in Indian law.

Professor Lindsay Robertson, faculty director for OU’s Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy, said word-of-mouth historically has been the primary marketing force that brought Native American students into any particular law school. That has changed as the school’s programs gain attention in industry journals and participation by nationally recognized Indian scholars.

Ross-Petherick said she doesn’t see the state’s law schools in direct competition with each other to dominate an Indian law niche. Ross-Petherick serves on the board of directors for the Cherokee Nation Foundation as well as Oklahoma Indian Legal Services, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to low-income American Indian citizens.

“What we always tell students is that even though each of our law schools has an Indian law program, we all do things a little differently and focus on different aspects,” she said. “Collectively, the three law schools have really good reputation in the legal world as far as Indian studies are concerned, so we have a strong respect for each other.”

Ross-Petherick said OCU tries to provide students with practical experience doing work in programs such as the Jodi G. Marquette American Indian Wills Clinic while they’re still in enrolled.

“We try to build our programs around that model so that students aren’t only in the classroom learning doctrine, but are also out in the real world learning how to apply it and getting experience with live clients,” she said. “We have more of a boots-on-the-ground-in-Indian-Country approach.”

Robertson said that Native American law is one of two law degree focus programs at OU, the other being oil and gas business. One way the school emphasizes that focus is through consultation with the U.S. government on indigenous peoples and universal periodic review, or UPR, clinic research for the United Nations. That work, which is cited by the Human Rights Council and used to shape international policy, helps OU’s reputation grow and attract more students.

Professor G. William Rice, co-director of the Native American Law Center in Tulsa, said his school has been a magnet for Indian students since establishing the first Native American law certificate program for juris doctor candidates in 1990.

Rice said Indian lawyers are just as likely to seek jobs in the tribes as the private sector or nontribal government agencies, which speaks well to the wide range of applicability of their skills. The Tulsa school also offers an LLM, or master of laws, degree in Indian law as well as a master of jurisprudence for nonlawyers.

Rice said the economic impact of tribal operations organized under a solid understanding of law is greater than many people appreciate.

“You really can’t practice law in this state without running into an Indian issue,” he said. “We’re still on the rise in enrollment because we need more Indian attorneys . Figure that we’ve got 39 federally recognized tribes in the state alone, and give each of them a judge, a prosecutor and public defender. Then think of an appellate court of at least three judges.

“And that doesn’t even count the big tribes with lots of territory and lots of people,” he said. “There’s only 50-60 people who are members of the Indian law section of the Oklahoma Bar Association. We’re way, way, way shy of the number of attorneys who are competent practitioners of Indian law.”

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Information from: The Journal Record, http://www.journalrecord.com

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