Learning is one thing; doing is another.
While knowledge is critically important to the practice of law, it isn’t the full picture. Just as understanding the intricacies of a heart valve doesn’t make one a cardiac surgeon, learning about the law doesn’t transform a law student into a lawyer.
How does that transformation happen? For many law students, a significant part occurs by involving themselves in the legal community through clinics, externships and practicum courses. This practical training gives students an opportunity to put their legal knowledge into action. Through experiential learning, students begin to think comprehensively about a legal situation; make good, informed and reliable judgments about what needs to happen; strategize about how to meet the needs of the person or organization they are representing; prioritize the tactics that can make a strategy a reality; and implement those tactics. In the process, they begin to see themselves as lawyers.
The University of St. Thomas School of Law is a leader in practical training for law students, ranked No. 1 in the country this year by The National Jurist. Law schools were ranked by calculating the most experiential learning opportunities per student, using information provided to the American Bar Association by each school in three categories: faculty-supervised clinic positions, externships and simulation or practicum courses. Schools also received bonus points for unique innovations, such as the School of Law’s national award-winning Mentor Externship Program. The School of Law had the highest total ranking, and was one of 11 law schools to receive an A+ grade.
Erbayne Jarvis had learned how to write a brief in class, but creating one while part of a clinic allowed him to see the actual results.
“The outcome wasn’t a grade,” he said. “It made a difference in somebody’s life.”
His appellate brief was submitted to the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of the University of St. Thomas Community Justice Project, a community development and social justice clinic housed at the university’s Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services (IPC). Jarvis ’09 is now the solo practitioner at The Law Office of Erbayne W. Jarvis.
In clinics, supervised law students represent individual clients or organizations. They interview clients, determine their legal needs and counsel them about what they should do and why. “As basic as that may seem, for many students this is the first time they have had this level of responsibility for another person’s legal fate,” said Virgil Wiebe, director of clinical education and professor of law.
Clinic students also learn about the benefits and challenges of collaboration. The IPC is one of the only clinics in the country in which law, social work and professional psychology students work together to provide comprehensive services to clients in need. Wiebe noted that this kind of collaboration is common in medicine, and is just coming to the fore in the legal world. Collaboration teaches teamwork, role definition and communication, as well as values and ethics. It also forces students to deal with the very real differences among professions.
“Our students deal with the practical challenges about ethical duties that different professions have toward clients and society,” Wiebe said. “The most obvious ethical conflict with attorneys and mental health professionals involves vulnerable populations. Mental health professionals are mandated reporters of certain types of behavior, and attorneys are not.”
Touch Thouk, a judicial law clerk with Referee George Borer of the Hennepin County Probate Mental Health Division, maximized her practical training by taking both an advanced elder law clinic and a judicial externship with Hennepin County Judge Jay M. Quam, who at the time was the presiding judge over probate and mental health. As a clinic student, she wrote the script for a video to be shown to guardians and conservators, explaining their rights, duties and responsibilities. That video now is required viewing for every guardian and conservator in four Minnesota districts.
In the course of her externship, Thouk reviewed files, conducted legal research and wrote memos on the issues that cases brought forward, especially concerning guardianships. That work, plus her observations of the court’s inner workings, triggered significant reflection and discussion in her weekly externship class.
This weekly classroom experience is an integral part of the externship experience, according to Joel Nichols, associate dean for academic affairs and professor. In addition to the 140 to 150 hours students spend at their placements each semester, “classroom sessions allow students to debrief about their experiences,” he said. “They also add additional content and context.” Issues raised in class range from what it is like working as an in-house counsel to why a supervisor approaches a situation the way he or she does.
In the Energy Law Practicum in 2013, student Phil Steger had to negotiate a natural gas exploration and drilling lease. “My client was the landowner, so we had to figure out what his interests were, and how these interests are expressed legally in a lease agreement,” said Steger, who is a clerk for Judge Diana E. Murphy, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. “We had to make our proposals, and anticipate what the counterproposals would be.” Steger’s group negotiated with another group of students representing the other side, and presented in class on the process and results. Then they repeated the entire process, arguing a public utilities rate commission case.
The course taught students many practical skills. “We drafted documents – the kind you really would submit to a client, or opposing party, or a court,” he said. “Through this process, we learned the form such documents should take, and what the substantive expectations were. I really learned a lot.”
The Energy Law Practicum is one of several simulation courses offered each semester. Often building on a professor’s area of professional passion, the courses are like an apprenticeship, Nichols said. “Here, students can try things out with no risk to actual clients,” he said, which serves as a safety net that may allow them greater freedom.
Steger’s practicum allowed him to do the work of a lawyer. More than that, it changed the way he thinks.
In the course, he said, “I went from thinking about what the professor wanted to thinking comprehensively about a client’s needs, prioritizing those needs and figuring out how to communicate those needs persuasively.
This is the thinking that lawyers are hired to do. Without practical training, there is nothing in law school that forces you to go through this difficult thinking process.
“By themselves, doctrinal courses don’t do that,” he continued. “You have to put the knowledge gained in those courses into concrete, solid, informed judgments about how that knowledge applies in the most advantageous way to the client’s situation.”
That thought process proved important in the complicated appellate issues Steger dealt with in his judicial externship with Chief Judge Michael J. Davis for the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. “Judge Davis required that I give him my best judgment on the issues in a case and how it should be resolved,” he said. “Firms will be asking for the same thing – the best strategy and judgment for the client.”
For Thouk, working in a law environment strengthened her understanding. “My externship let me see behind-the-scenes activities in a court,” she said. “I saw what a file looks like on the back end – something that’s not generally available to lawyers. I watched how different attorneys practice and present themselves, and how a judicial officer makes a decision. All this really helped me fine-tune my skills.”
She also learned the importance of gaining clarity by asking questions of the right people, including mentors she met through the School of Law’s Mentor Externship Program. The program pairs each law student with a practicing judge or attorney during every law school semester. “It’s so important to process with a mentor when you’re unsure,” she said. “Through the mentorship program, I built great relationships with my mentors. Whenever I felt I needed to discuss a situation, my mentors helped me through tough times as an extern and later as a law clerk.”
For Jarvis, thinking like a lawyer took a different form. He learned how to wait – and wait some more – for a decision to be handed down. And when the decision was announced, Jarvis learned to deal with the dejection that often can come when efforts are not successful. “Interacting with my professor helped me understand that there will be disappointments in my legal practice, and how to deal with them,” he said.
Just as skills and thought processes undergo transformations through practical training, so do law students’ images of themselves. It’s part of the process of professional formation, of internalizing that they are becoming lawyers.
“So much of law school is theoretical, which is an important part of the learning process. But being involved in this appeal was the first time it all became real,” Jarvis said. “I had a real client. I had to interact with this client in his environment – a prison. I had to deliver the bad news that our appeal was not successful. This is the real world.”
Thouk’s externship helped her see what takes place behind the courtroom doors and to understand the big picture of how attorneys work. “In this position, I was privileged to see the work that attorneys provide the court,” she said. “It impressed on me the need to be really careful and diligent.”
Steger concurred. “Through my externship, I was exposed to the practice of a lot of lawyers. I read their briefs and heard their oral arguments. It made a huge impact on me,” he said. It also brought home the responsibility he bears as an attorney. “Most clients aren’t in a position to evaluate the representation they’re getting. Seeing how utterly dependent clients are on the skills of their lawyers is both motivating and sobering,” he said. “As attorneys, we have an obligation to do the best possible job to think well and execute a legal strategy skillfully and carefully.”
All this knowledge translates into confidence. “When you start as an extern, there are so many unknowns, especially in a specialty court. I just absorbed a lot,” Thouk said. “Now, I’m completely comfortable in a courtroom.”
For Steger, professional formation took place at many levels. “In the easiest terms, being a lawyer was no longer abstract or speculation about the future. You actually do law. That makes it easier to see myself as a lawyer,” he said.
At another level, the process is more complex, one that started in his practicum and continued through his externship. “It can become really exciting to watch and learn from others,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see what truly dedicated, ethical, brilliant professionals do. How do they go about their work? What kind of product do they produce? What standards do they apply? Now I have a picture of what that looks like. It’s aspirational. I want to be like this person and develop this level of care, precision, responsibility and ethical strength in the face of difficult challenges. It makes such a big difference to have that picture in my mind. I know where to keep growing – what I’m capable of.”
Nichols described it as the process of beginning to include students in the legal community. “It’s about role formation, as students interact with people who work in the legal world,” he said.
The benefits abound – for students as well as for their future employers and clients. “Future employers get someone who has practiced how to be a lawyer, not just someone who has been told or taught,” Nichols said.
Wiebe put it more simply. “We would never go to a doctor who got out of medical school without working in a hospital. Why would anyone go to an attorney who has never actually practiced law?”
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