In light of the significant changes taking place within the legal profession, UConn Law has taken a proactive approach in examining and implementing curriculum reform measures with an emphasis on enhancing experiential learning opportunities and ensuring that its graduates have the core competencies needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive legal environment.
Major initiatives taken to date include:
• The establishment in 2011 of a Curriculum Review Committee charged with comprehensively examining how UConn Law can best prepare its graduates for lawyering in the 21st century.
• The adoption of a practice-based learning requirement that ensures that all students have at least one intensive, carefully supervised, live-lawyering experience before graduating.
• The hiring of Dean Timothy S. Fisher — a charismatic leader who has practiced law in Connecticut since 1978 and has strong views on the importance of building professional character in students before they transition to the workplace.
• The naming of longtime Clinical Professor of Law Paul Chill ’85 as UConn Law’s first associate dean for clinical and experiential education.
We asked Associate Dean Chill and Assistant Clinical Professor of Law Jennifer Mailly, who directs the Law School’s individual externship program, for an update on their thoughts about curricular reform, including what additional steps UConn Law expects to take to further enhance the skills and marketability of its future graduates. We began our conversation with Associate Dean Chill.
Since joining the Law School faculty in 1988, you have been supervising various clinical programs, as well as teaching courses that enhance practice-based skills graduates need to succeed. Talk about UConn Law’s commitment to clinical and experiential education and skills training to date and how that commitment has provided a solid base for the work you hope to accomplish in your new position as the associate dean of clinical and experiential education.
Chill: When I went to law school here in the early 1980s, if you wanted to learn how to practice law your options were pretty much limited to Mike Sheldon’s Criminal Clinic, Jim Stark’s Civil Clinic and a couple of sections of Trial Practice. Today we have more than a dozen clinics; a robust individual externship program; an innovative, required, first-year course that teaches interviewing, counseling and negotiation; and a growing number of upperclass electives in which students regularly participate in simulations and small-group exercises that place them in practitioner roles. Two years ago, we became one of the first fifteen U.S. law schools to adopt a requirement that all students take a clinic or externship. It’s that commitment to, and proliferation of, experiential learning that made creation of a new administrative position essential.
For the last two years, you chaired the faculty’s Curriculum Review Committee, which is charged with examining how UConn Law can best prepare its graduates for practice in the 21st century. Briefly discuss the committee’s activities to date and how, going forward, you expect its work to inform your work as associate dean of clinical and experiential learning. What are some of the issues currently on the committee’s agenda?
Chill: The committee’s work continues to be broad-ranging. The “practice-based learning requirement” adopted by the faculty two years ago was developed by the committee. This year, the committee, under the leadership of Professors Jim Stark and Alexandra Lahav, has focused on means to improve students’ basic research and writing skills. The verdict is still out on what specific measures will be proposed. Other reforms the committee has discussed include: the creation of “lab” companions to doctrinal courses in which students apply the doctrine through written and other exercises and receive feedback on their performance; development of upperclass “capstone” courses in which teams of students work intensively over the course of a semester through multiple stages of complex, simulated client problems in a selected practice area; establishment of additional concentrations and certificate programs; and a variety of other changes.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need for law schools to produce “practice-ready” graduates. Others have criticized that goal as unrealistic. What is your view on this?
Chill: I prefer saying that we need to produce “practice-readier” graduates. There’s no doubt that law schools can do much more than they have done historically to equip students with the full range of skills and habits of mind that most lawyers would deem fundamental: problem-solving, fact investigation, decision-making under conditions of factual and/or legal uncertainty, and a broad range of written and oral communication skills. Yet these are capacities that lawyers continue to develop years after starting practice, and the best lawyers never stop developing them. Indeed, an over-arching lawyering skill is the ability to learn from, and apply the lessons of, one’s own experience through a combination of systematic planning and rigorous self-critique. So I’m not sure what it even means for a lawyer to be “practice-ready.” The point is that law schools need to pay more attention to developing these core competencies so that their graduates don’t start learning them in practice. We are assisting students by expanding experiential education, in both live-client and live-office settings, as well as offering simulated settings.
You serve on the Connecticut Bar Association’s “Task Force on the Future of Legal Education and Standards for Admission.” Discuss the work the task force is doing, particularly as it relates to experiential education.
Chill: The Task Force, formed last September, has defined its mission as “facilitating a collaborative and cooperative effort between law schools, lawyers, bar associations and regulatory entities to better educate and prepare competent new lawyers.” It’s too soon to tell what specific proposals may emerge, but a recent report by a similar task force created by the New York City Bar Association contains some ambitious proposals and provides some idea of the range of possibilities. For those who interested, the report can be found at:
Some legal scholars are concerned that the enhancement of clinical and experiential learning programs at law schools reflects a shift away from the rigorous study of the theoretical topics that legal education has excelled at for many years. Is that concern well founded with regard to upsetting the balance between clinical/experiential initiatives and more traditional, doctrinal courses at UConn Law?
Chill: The supposed opposition between the “theoretical” and the “practical” is a canard. Lawyers obviously need a good dose of both. Moreover, the best lawyer training — and some of the most interesting legal scholarship — applies insights from such diverse fields as psychology, anthropology and economics to the work that lawyers do as advocates, counselors, negotiators and mediators. The point is to achieve a better balance between theoretical and practical training, and to integrate the two wherever possible.
Are there any new courses in the Law School curriculum geared to bridging the gap between theory and practice through the involvement of students in group projects?
Chill: Professor Dalié Jiménez has been teaching a course on Consumer Laws and Debt Collection in which she and her students are collaborating with professors and students at other law schools and practitioners at legal services organizations in a multidisciplinary research project studying the effectiveness of various legal interventions to help individuals in financial distress. Students in Adjunct Professor Dwight Merriam’s Local Land Use Regulation Practicum, being offered for the first time this spring, will assist land use agencies in a Connecticut town by analyzing applications, researching, and drafting amendments to regulations and presenting their findings at public meetings.
Do you envision any additional curriculum requirements being adopted by the faculty in the next year or so? For example, do you envision experiential learning components being further integrated into the core curriculum?
Chill: It’s hard to predict what additional proposals might emerge from the work of the Curriculum Review Committee. But a growing number of faculty members have been taking initiative on their own and experimenting with different active-learning modalities. For example, employing an idea developed by Professor Sachin Pandya, the students in several Contracts sections last fall studied the briefs in a contracts case pending before the Connecticut Supreme Court, wrote predictive memos analyzing how the case would be decided, observed and debriefed a mooting session with one of the law firms in the case and attended the actual oral argument. The Socratic method is still alive and well, but our professors are increasingly supplementing it with creative ways of engaging students in real and simulated lawyering problems, thereby helping them learn how to “think like a lawyer” in the full glory of that term. One exciting development that some faculty are starting to experiment with is the notion of “flipped teaching” or the “flipped classroom,” in which instructors record lectures for students to watch online before class, which frees up classtime for exercises in which teachers can offer more personalized guidance, feedback, and interaction with students. I believe the future of legal and other education lies very much in this direction, as well as in the direction of greater reliance on clinics and externships.
As you mentioned above, in the fall of 2012, the Law School adopted a practice-based learning requirement that will ensure that all students have at least one intensive, carefully supervised, live-lawyering experience before graduating — a requirement that took effect with students entering the Law School in the fall of 2013. Discuss the various ways students can currently satisfy the new requirement. Also, what is being done to assist students in identifying and evaluating opportunities that ensure that they meet the practice-based learning requirement?
Chill: Students can satisfy the requirement in one of three ways. First, they can enroll in one of more than a dozen clinical programs. Second, they can participate in a supervised externship clinic that includes a weekly seminar that focuses — and forces students to reflect critically — on issues that arise in practice regarding ethics, professionalism and learning from their experience, among other topics. Finally, they can enroll in a “hybrid” course in which the class as a whole, or groups of students within it, works on actual lawyering projects in conjunction with a public or non-profit agency such as a local zoning board. I agree with the implicit premise of your question, namely that students will derive the most benefit from the new requirement if they are provided — or at least offered — counseling about how to choose among their many options. One potential innovation that the Curriculum Review Committee has been considering is a new, required first-year course that would expose students to the challenges and opportunities in a broad range of practice areas as well as introduce them to some of the economic, sociological and anthropological literature on the profession as a whole. This would help students choose among clinics and externship opportunities and enable them to make better-informed curricular choices in general and begin charting at least a tentative path in the law earlier on in law school.
What are the biggest challenges you see at this point with regard to implementing the practice-based requirement in a manner that is satisfactory to the administration and to students? How will the Law School help ensure that students have an adequate number of live-lawyering experiences to choose from?
Chill: We’re working hard to expand our clinical and externship offerings. Dean Fisher in particular has been amazingly proactive in that regard, but it’s difficult to know exactly or even approximately how many placements we will need to make the new requirement succeed. For the past several years, we’ve had roughly one clinic seat available for every entering student (although only 60% of graduates wound up taking a clinic, while 80% took either a clinic or an externship). Those numbers made the practice-based learning requirement possible, but they may not be enough to implement it. If every student elected to satisfy the requirement by taking a clinic, that would significantly restrict student choice and preclude any student from taking a second clinic, both very undesirable outcomes. We don’t know yet how many students will choose to satisfy the requirement through an individual externship rather than a clinic. And in this era of unstable and generally declining law school applications, we can’t know with any confidence what our class size is going to look like in coming years, and thus how many students we will need to accommodate. So finding the appropriate balance between providing enough opportunities for students to have real choice, but not so many that we wind up with lots of empty seats in clinics and externships, is very much a matter of art, not science, and something we’re frankly going to get better at as we go along.
One of our biggest challenges of implementation is figuring out how to provide practice-based learning opportunities for evening students who work full-time or have other obligations during the day. Another challenge is retooling our individual externship program to incorporate new seminars, as well as changing the applicable rules and deadlines so that students are required to think about externships early, systematically and self-reflectively.
Dean Timothy Fisher has spoken at length about the importance of developing a stronger sense of professionalism in lawyers-to-be as an integral part of their law school training. Talk about what the Law School is currently doing to help enhance the professionalism of its students and how you expect to further address this challenge down the road.
Chill: The “professionalism gap” is something that has been talked about for a long time, has complex causes and is not easily resolved. The best law school professionalism training now occurs — and probably will always occur — in live-client clinics, where a student’s conduct and decisions have real impact on real people.
Many of our clinical faculty use a “drop everything” approach when important ethical issues arise by treating such issues as paramount and enlisting the entire class in working through solutions. For example, in one case I supervised years ago in the then Disability Law Clinic, a team of students in an employment discrimination case where we represented the plaintiff managed to get an important but reluctant witness to speak to them on the phone by ambiguously stating that they were “investigating a claim with the state human rights agency.” The witness obviously thought that the students were working with the agency rather than representing the claimant — which was the whole point of the deception. The students’ conduct clearly violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, and we spent most of a three-hour class session problem-solving as a group what had to be done and why. I’ll guarantee you none of the students in that class will ever forget Rule 4.3. I strongly suspect they also learned deep and lasting lessons about professionalism that cannot be duplicated in even the most dynamic nonclinical classroom.
The more we can expose students to issues of professionalism throughout the curriculum, the better. Like every other accredited U.S. law school, we require our students to take a course on legal ethics called Legal Profession here and Professional Responsibility at many other schools. Unlike most other law schools, our students get a good dose of professionalism training in the second semester of the required first-year Lawyering Process course, which is an experiential course focusing on legal interviewing, counseling, and negotiation. Those subjects are suffused with professionalism issues, such as the nature of the lawyer-client relationship, the lawyer’s role in helping clients make decisions and dealing with adversaries in negotiation.
In addition, students who enroll in individual externships participate in a mandatory orientation program that stresses ethical obligations, effective work habits, and appropriate office behavior and communications, to ensure that students conduct themselves professionally in a legal office environment. Beyond that, we have begun talking about other ways of instilling and reinforcing professional values in students and it is too soon to predict exactly where those discussions will lead.
“The more we can expose students to issues of professionalism throughout the curriculum, the better.”
Paul Chill ’85, Associate Dean for Clinical and Experiential Education
What is your longer-term vision — say, five years from now — for clinical and experiential initiatives or programs at the Law School?
Chill: Some of that may depend on forces beyond our control. The section of the ABA that accredits law schools has been working for several years now on new accreditation standards that could radically affect law school curricula. One of these, for example, would require law schools to require 15 credits of clinics, externships or simulations as a condition of graduation. Other proposals would require law schools to identify specific educational goals and desired outcomes for students and to develop means for measuring the school’s success in achieving them. Exactly what new rules will emerge is not yet clear, but most people think it’s a matter of when and not if. So projecting forward five years is difficult because the ground may be shifting under our feet. Suffice it to say that I hope and expect to see greater and greater integration of experiential learning into all that we do here, as is increasingly happening at all levels of education.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Law Jennifer Mailly has supervised the Law School’s individual externship program since 2008. We asked Professor Mailly to share information about the externship program and the benefits that such experiences provide our students and graduates.
For starters, describe the nuts and bolts of the individual externship program.
Mailly: The individual externship program enables students to earn academic credit for an unpaid legal practice experience under the supervision of a judge or seasoned lawyer working outside of the Law School. The program, which is probably the most flexible of our practice-based learning opportunities, allows students to choose among a wide variety of field placements in in-house legal offices, law firms, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and offices, and courts — virtually anywhere attorneys are working. The variety of placements runs the gamut from private practices focused on immigration, civil rights and criminal law to government agencies, including the IRS, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and various departments of the Attorney General’s Office. We also place students with the legal staff at UConn Health Center and with some of the region’s larger corporations, including The Hartford, which sponsors students every semester, and various affiliates of United Technologies Corporation.
Typically, students enroll in an externship for two or three credits during a semester, which translates to working eight to twelve hours a week at the placement. Each student extern has a field placement supervisor, an attorney at the placement who is responsible for assigning, guiding and evaluating the extern’s work. In addition, student externs maintain a reflective journal and communicate regularly with a Law School faculty member about the learning experience, including what they are learning about uncertainties, challenges and tensions that may exist in the legal practice environment. Our program requires that externs undertake substantive legal work, which may include such assignments as legal research, drafting, fact investigation and trial witness preparation, and also participate in the day-to-day activities of the legal placement — meetings, conference calls, hearings, negotiations. Students and field placement supervisors are encouraged to craft a work schedule that provides the maximum educational benefit for the student — which is the primary goal of the program.
Students involved in the individual extern program also attend a mandatory orientation session which is focused in large part on the ethical issues that may arise during the externship with regard to confidentiality, conflicts of interest and the obligation to provide competent representation to clients. The orientation is an acculturation process which prepares students to enter a legal practice venue knowing how to behave like a professional attorney. We also discuss important office protocols, like cell phone and email use and other etiquette issues. The topics covered in the orientation dovetail with the purpose of the program, which is to prepare students for professional life, not just for legal life. We also are planning to add a weekly seminar requirement to the individual externship program next fall so that all externships will count towards a student’s practice-based learning degree requirement.
Discuss how an individual externship enhances the overall student experience, including how it provides an opportunity for students to integrate their classroom education with practical experience.
Mailly: An individual externship experience connects the doctrinal and classroom work that students do to the legal work that is being done in the community. Many students become frustrated because they don’t see the relevance of their classroom experience to what they may be doing in the outside legal world. Clinics and externships merge those two experiences and enable students to see how what they study in their doctrinal classes really does help them become more effective advocates, counselors and regulators. Engaging in legal practice also helps students choose their doctrinal classes more wisely by creating a synergy between what is going on in the classroom and what their future careers may look like.
Individual externships also provide a great opportunity for enhanced skills development and deeper understanding of doctrinal law. Externs hone their research and writing skills, oral communication skills and interpersonal skills. We can’t do enough in the classroom to refine these skills. Externships also can serve to cement doctrinal knowledge. A student who externs for the Department of Revenue Services for a semester is going to know a lot more about tax law and regulations than she did when she began.
In addition to the educational value of individual externships — and perhaps most importantly — students really enjoy them. When they rate their externships, most students refer to them as incredibly valuable and sometimes life-changing experiences. Externs don the role of lawyer and what they find is hard work, but also a lot of fun.
“The individual externship is meant to be a substantive educational experience, not necessarily a work experience.”
Jennifer Mailly, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Individual Externship Program
How does the individual externship program offer students opportunities to investigate different areas of the law and, in doing so, help them make determinations about their longer-term professional plans?
Mailly: First and foremost, individual externships provide a context for the classroom experience. Often, students don’t immediately realize that what they are doing in the classroom has any practical application. When they go out to n externship, they see that it, in fact, does. That’s one of the major benefits of an externship: to put that legal education in practice.
Individual externships also give the student a glimpse of what works for them in terms of a career and what a good job fit is going to be. Many students start law school without any idea of what kind of law they want to practice. Externships are an opportunity for students to explore a variety of different placements — such as legal services, in-house work or government agency work — during their time in law school. These experiences help students get a sense of what future career may be most fulfilling. Often, students will be exposed to an area of practice or practice venue — like a small firm or legal services organization — that they might not otherwise consider and realize that this is where they can really soar. Of course, externs also get insight into careers that may not suit their personalities or interests, which is very valuable as well. Students are often reminded that while they are going to be in law school for only three or four years, they will be a practicing attorney for the rest of their lives, so it is important to see what the next stage is going to be and prepare for that experience.
Another important aspect of an externship is the opportunity for networking. Externships provide an opportunity for students to learn about the world of legal practice and to make connections within that world. Students are shown that networking can be very valuable for getting jobs and for getting involved in the life of the legal practice.
In light of the Law School’s new “practice-based learning” requirement, demand on the part of students for individual externship opportunities is apt to increase, perhaps significantly. How does the Law School hope to help meet that demand?
Mailly: We need to meet that demand by reaching out to more members of the community, members of the bar and, of course, our graduates, many of whom are doing varied and exciting work. We are working to find more quality placements for our students in as many different areas of the law as we can, especially in areas of the law that are growing, such as health care law.
How does a student go about finding an individual externship that meets his or her interests, as well as the criteria of the program?
Mailly: There are basically three ways a student finds an externship placement. First, a student will meet with me and we will brainstorm some ideas. Sometimes, I will be able to provide a student with information about field placement supervisors to reach out to right then and there. Sometimes, if a student is interested in a field where we don’t currently have opportunities, I’ll go out and beat some bushes to find people who do that kind of work. I see myself as a matchmaker. I listen to the student’s interests and needs and try to fill those needs with the right placement. Ideally, I’d like to do that for every student.
Another way students can learn about externship opportunities is to check on the Career Planning Center’s website — Symplicity — for announcements that are posted from field placement sponsors who are looking for student externs with interest in gaining practical learning experiences in particular fields. In those situations, I try to find students who may fit that particular need, so the matchmaking works in both directions. I see it as creating win-win situations for both students and field placement sponsors. We also have students who have secured externship opportunities on their own. When that happens, they will come to me and I’ll decide if the proposed externship placement meets the requirements of our externship program. I see myself as playing an important counseling role in helping students decide what kind of experience would be the best fit for them given their overall course of study.
Generally, we are looking for field placement sponsors that will provide our students with a substantive educational experience. We expect that our students will get substantive legal assignments — assignments they would get if they were practicing in that environment. We also ask externship sponsors to help the students get a sense of the day-to-day activities that go on for lawyers at the placement venue. We do not want to see a student squirreled away in a back office churning out research memos. We are looking for a broad-based legal experience for the student. While we don’t dictate any product requirements, we do ask that the student experience mimic the experience of the lawyers in the office. We ask, for example, that students be allowed to accompany lawyers to depositions, court hearings and settlement conferences — or even activities that don’t necessarily relate to the project the student has been assigned.
Tell us more about how members of the alumni community can help ensure the continued success of the individual externship program?
Mailly: We are always looking for graduates who are interested in sharing their experiences with students by sponsoring externships. At a recent alumni event in Washington, DC, I was able to connect with a number of graduates who expressed interest in taking on student externs as part of our Semester in DC Program. We have such a wealth of graduates represented at federal agencies and they have the potential to provide a great opportunity for our students to gain practical legal experience in those areas. While the DC placements aren’t technically individual externships, my role in finding students suitable externship placements does not differ whether I am trying to place a student in Hartford, in DC or even in Brussels as part of our International Legal Program.
Any final thoughts you want to share?
Mailly: Ultimately, this is all about our mission — educating future lawyers in the best way possible. Externships are a very important piece of that mission.
Feature: Curricular Reform
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