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Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Practical skills in vogue in law school classrooms
By Don J. DeBenedictis
Photo courtesy of Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law
David H. Gibbs, a transactional skills professor at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, instructs one of the many courses at law schools nationwide that aim to teach students practical skills through experience.

COSTA MESA - Last week, Whittier Law School associate professor Kelly Mauerman ended a lecture on electronic discovery with the comment, "This is when the class becomes more real world." She then donned a black robe and took the bench in the school's new courtroom, while student Natalie Badillo-Casas approached the lectern to argue an e-discovery motion.

Law students arguing practice motions to faux judges is nothing new, especially in an advanced legal research and writing class such as Mauerman's. But her class - now known as Lawyering Skills - is part of a shift in Whittier's curriculum meant to blend training in real-world practice activities with ordinary substantive law. When fully implemented a year from now, 29 out of 59 required class units will include some "experiential learning," the school says.

Such curricular changes are rippling throughout law schools in California and across the country. Most every law school is looking at ways to increase its skills-oriented and experiential learning offerings, as the courses and programs are called these days. "I hear talk about it all over the place," Mauerman said.

Just a dozen miles away from Whittier's Costa Mesa campus, Chapman University's Fowler School of Law also is revamping its course offerings, with more to come next year.

At the business-oriented Chapman, every student soon will be required to take a course in transactional skills and another in litigation skills, said Dean Tom Campbell. "What we're proposing is cutting-edge," he said.

And the trend is spreading. "Everybody's doing it," said Luke Bierman, the associate dean for experiential education at Boston's Northeastern University School of Law.

As one metric of the movement's growth, consider Bierman's title of "experiential dean." In 2011, when he started at Northeastern, there were fewer than a dozen law school deans or directors with "experiential" in their titles. As of this summer, there are 47, he said.

Northeastern has required substantial practice experience of students for decades, and many other schools have been offering advocacy classes and clinics for nearly as long. David Babbe, UCLA School of Law's interim director of clinical programs, participated in one such clinic as a student there more than 30 years ago.

Even though the school now has about 35 clinics, UCLA is seeking ways to boost experiential offerings. "We've been thinking a lot about, 'Are there other opportunities we could provide?'" Babbe said.

UCLA also is advertising for a new dean of clinical and experiential learning.

The main reasons for the shift are obvious: the struggling economy, the shrinking legal job market and demands by firms and clients. "Law firms do not want bright people who have no ability to practice that they have to train on their nickel," said David H. Gibbs, Chapman's brand-new transactional skills professor, previously the practitioner in residence at Suffolk University Law School.

Whittier's new curriculum is seen as "a bridge to practice" to speed graduates' route to success, Mauerman said.

Another factor is a report from a special State Bar task force proposing that all would-be California lawyers have had 15 units of skills courses or externships in law school before admission.

That recommendation and a somewhat similar program underway in New York may have spurred the American Bar Association recently to propose that all law schools, as part of maintaining accreditation, require students to complete at least six credits of experiential education, according to Anthony S. Niedwiecki, the experiential dean at the John Marshall Law School and a former president of the Association of Legal Writing Directors.

At Whittier, "our thinking was if this is going to happen ... let's just do it now," said Martin Pritikin, a professor recently named associate dean of experiential learning.

Many others, however, downplayed the influence of the State Bar plan. "This is something we're already doing and would be growing irrespective" of the bar recommendation, Babbe said. The looming requirement "reinforces ... and underscores what we're doing."

Loyola Law School, for instance, has had skills-type offerings for many years. The students, who tend to be older and more practical than at some other schools, demand those classes, said Jean Boylan, who's had "experiential learning" in her title since 2011.

Loyola's offerings include a number of "practicums," in which a skills-focused substantive law class often leads to a real-world "capstone" experience that puts the substantive learning into practice. For instance, students in the family law practicum also work in a family-law clinic, culminating in arguing a "request for orders" before a Los Angeles County Superior Court judicial officer.

The new curricula at Chapman and Whittier each have features that are rare but beginning to show up at some other schools. For instance, both schools plan to put first-year students into skills-heavy versions of civil procedure courses.

"Civil procedure is very hard to get your head around," Whittier's Pritikin said. The various concepts and issues "don't make sense divorced from actual cases."

Therefore, what had been a one-semester civil procedure course will stretch over two semesters, with room for many simulations and practice-like experiences, he said.

Upper-division courses, such as evidence, also will adopt such methods, according to Pritikin.

Chapman intends to blend the practical with the doctrinal in many courses, Campbell said, by have practicing lawyers team-teach the courses with regular faculty. That will be "unique and very helpful educationally," the dean said - and may also help some graduates find jobs with the practitioner-teachers.

Gibbs added that he sees Chapman's new curriculum including a heavy focus on professional values and identity. Those concepts include "knowing what it is to be a lawyer, being ethical, being reflective," he said.

Pritikin also plans a first-year class he wants to call The Complete Lawyer to look at similar ideas, he said.

Schools all over are experimenting and changing. UCLA is urging professors to create clinics, such as constitutional star Eugene Volokh's new First Amendment amicus brief clinic.

Rather than bring in outside practitioners, Golden Gate University School of Law is asking professors to create skills-oriented classes based on narrow subspecialties within their substantive areas, said Wes R. Porter, the director of the school's litigation center. Porter also runs an intense summer litigation program modeled after the course given new assistant U.S. attorneys.

Some professors at the McGeorge School of Law - and many others - are pairing casebooks with books edited by colleague Michael Vitiello called "Bridge to Practice" that provide simulation exercises, said McGeorge's Brian K. Landsberg.

"There's a lot of experimenting going on," said Northeastern's Bierman, who co-leads a national symposium called Alliance for Experiential Learning in Law. "What's going to catch on as most effective remains to be seen."

Students are pleased, according to Badillo-Casas, who argued the discovery motion at Whittier. "I think it's absolutely great that they're trying to prep us" for challenges graduates will face in practice, she said. "That's what we need, practically speaking."


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