Law school aims for 'practice-ready' lawyers

School plans to embed classes with opportunities for experiential learning

By Charles Thompson

CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) - At campuses across the country, the 2014-15 school year has just begun.

Students across the country are getting to know roommates, learning class schedules, meeting professors and seeking out deals on textbooks.

And then there's the Penn State Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, where the typical new-year energy is enhanced with planning for its new chapter in legal education starting in 2015.

The Carlisle campus is just one year away now from its new grand experiment starting next summer: a new life as one of two, separately-accredited law schools operated by Penn State.

Faculty here are now months into a curriculum development process that will see the once-and-future Dickinson Law pledging a core focus on "producing practice-ready lawyers for a competitive, global market."

That's an intentional statement meant as a mark of distinction in a legal education field that's been criticized for years for doing a better job of teaching students how to graduate from law school than how to be a lawyer.

Some law firms have responded with their own mandatory training periods, where first-year associates receive months more of practical training before they are expected to serve or bill a client.

Dickinson at Carlisle hopes to distinguish itself from that trend, Interim Dean Gary Gildin told PennLive in an interview last week, by embedding classes with regular opportunities for experiential learning from the first semester on.

A typical first-year student, for example, could be expected to lead an in-take interview for potential "clients" who have requested a spot in the Bethesda Mission's monthly legal services clinic.

By the end of their three-year track, Gildin said, all students will be required to have earned 12 experiential credits through: work at one of more of Dickinson's several in-house clinics; a local internship (counting as one course) with a government agency or non-profit; or a new "practice-in-residence" program where the majority of semester credits will be earned through work with mentors in Harrisburg, Washington D.C. or elsewhere.

In between, Gildin said the Carlisle faculty has developed other sets of courses designed to help all aspiring lawyers get more of the job-specific training that many say has been missing from law school curriculums.

Operating under the conceptual title of "Lawyer As...," this part of the curriculum is designed to steer students into electives geared to specific careers like public interest advocate, criminal prosecutor or defender, or business adviser.

Still other classes will stir job competencies like project management or business development into the mix that so often go hand-in-hand with representation of a client, and demonstrate the varied ways a law degree can be used.

"This is an effort to guide students in their elective class choices," Gildin said. "In a tougher legal marketplace, it will help them go into that marketplace with maximum ammunition as to their qualifications."

Experiential learning is in a growth mode at law school across the country, and several outside observers reached for this report said Dickinson's emphasis there is well-placed.

Traditionally, they noted, law schools have placed a great deal of classroom emphasis on learning major cases and legal doctrine.

But David Santacroce, president of the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education at the University of Michigan, noted Friday that really only accounts for about 25 to 30 percent of what a lawyer does.

"The rest is psychology, strategy, client counseling," Santacroce said. "It's playing chess. And you can read a lot of books about playing chess. But you don't really know how to play chess until you start playing."

Edward L. Rubin, a former dean of the Vanderbilt Law School, had a slightly different take.

He noted at too many law schools, students will take a contracts course where they read all kinds of case law about contracts. But they may spend next to no time actually learning how to read, draft or negotiate a contract.

Law schools are getting this message across the country, offering students many more experiential opportunities.

A 2011 study by CSALE reported that more than 80 percent of all law schools reporting that at least 50 percent of their students would have participated in some live-client or field placement program.

But not many require the depth of experience Dickinson's leaders are demanding - 12 credits of experiential learning - for a degree.

American Bar Association approved full accreditations for Penn State's law campuses at both University Park and Carlisle in June, effective with the academic classes entering in fall 2015.

Dickinson Carlisle's curriculum redesign comes as part of that split, which also leaves the Carlisle campus with own dean reporting directly to the university's provost, its own admissions staff, and its own targets for student recruitment.

The initial plan is to cap entering class sizes at roughly 75 students per year, the better to maximize individual instruction and attention to each student.

Gildin believes that scale, coupled with Dickinson Law's proximity to several county courts, the state Capitol in Harrisburg, and the federal government in Washington gives the Carlisle campus "unique attributes that are going to allow us to do this as well as or better than anyone else."

Published: Thu, Sep 04, 2014


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