Law school celebrates four decades of experiential learning
July 07, 2014
By Melody Finnemore
In an article published last winter, Robert Dinerstein, a law professor at American University and former member of the Council of the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, extolled the virtues of experiential learning for law students.
“Law schools are offering an ever-increasing array of classes, courses, programs, and experiences that provide students with the opportunity to learn, and reflect upon, legal skills, doctrine, ethics, and theory in the context of real and simulated legal work,” he wrote in the ABA publication Syllabus. “Under the capacious umbrella of ‘experiential education,’ law students have opportunities to be active, engaged learners not only in the law school classroom but in the world beyond.”
Dinerstein describes an educational philosophy that, now gaining popularity in law schools across the country, first took root at Lewis & Clark Law School four decades ago. Since then, Lewis & Clark’s practical skills programs and courses have grown exponentially—from the number of students who participate and variety of practice specialties they want to learn about to the range of hands-on opportunities available to them.
The law school’s popular Externship Program represents one of the most rapidly expanding areas of opportunity. During typical externships, students earn a full semester or summer’s worth of academic credit by working full time, without pay, under the guidance of a practicing attorney. Begun in 1979 by Professor and Jeffrey Bain Faculty Scholar Michael Blumm through his contacts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the program initially focused on environmental law and placed students exclusively in Washington, D.C. Three students participated the first semester.
“My original idea was that they would come back to school for at least a semester after the externship. They would write a paper, and then present it during a seminar so they could share their experiences,” Blumm said. The papers would also be made available to the companies and agencies that provided the externships.
Along with improving research and writing skills, the externships were designed—then, as now—to help students develop problem-solving strategies and enhance their understanding of their professional responsibilities as a lawyer.
By 2001, the number of students participating had risen to 13. Last year, 230 students completed externships. That number is expected to reach 250 this year. In addition to environmental law, students can participate in criminal justice, judicial, international, general, health, business/commercial, and tax law externships.
“This externship was the highlight of my law school career. I grew as a writer, I made lasting connections with inspiring advocates, and I contributed to something that really matters.”Kari Reitan ’14, extern for Judge John Acosta, U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon
“Students can also extern in congressional offices and policy organizations, which is great for those who don’t want to do a traditional law practice,” said Libby Davis ’93, Lewis & Clark Law School’s associate dean of Career and Professional Development and Alumni Relations.
The range of placement locations, too, has grown.
Professor Gary Meyers, now associate law dean at the University of Tasmania, oversaw Lewis & Clark’s Externship Program from 1983 to 1991 and is credited with expanding its specialty areas and placement opportunities. His primary goal was to make the program viable for any student who wanted the experience.
“I believe students benefited greatly,” Meyers said. “They learned more in six months about ‘lawyering’ than they could possibly learn in the classroom. Many built contacts for future jobs; some learned what they thought they wanted to do was not necessarily for them and made new and different choices following the externship placement. Those who went overseas or to a very different placement in the United States hopefully learned something from that experience about themselves and where they were working.”
Davis noted that the recession has fueled the program’s growth as students strive to gain work experience and enhance their employment prospects within the sluggish job market. In addition, government agencies and other public entities that have lost funding for clerks are eager to host externs, who help fill the resulting gaps.
“There are many government offices that, but for this program, probably wouldn’t have any law students working for them,” she said, adding that corporate practices appreciate having law students available 40 hours a week. Lewis & Clark also changed its program requirements to accommodate more students by offering part-time externships as well as full-time placements.
Blumm, who has worked with more than 600 externs, said many tell him the program was among the most significant aspects of their professional development. “It’s taken off in ways we didn’t quite anticipate at the beginning, and it’s been an overwhelming success over the years.”
Internships are another essential element in Lewis & Clark’s practical skills cadre. Martha Spence, associate dean of Academic Affairs and Admissions, oversees the 15-year-old Internship Program and said it, too, started with an environmental and natural resources law focus. The internships were meant to complement the externships, allowing students to continue taking classes while gaining workplace experience.
“Internships are even more important these days. You get to know people and they get to know you,” Spence said. “Students see the legal community at work and they see and participate in the type of work they will be doing. It’s a really rich experience.”
During their internships, students spend at least 10 hours a week at their placement and must produce a paper based on the experience. The program’s scope now includes criminal, corporate, intellectual property, and Indian law, among other specialty areas.
Environmental, animal, international, or Indian law: Lewis & Clark is a force to be reckoned with in the national moot court competition arena. The Environmental Law Moot Court team alone has won the national competition seven times, shattering the previous record of two consecutive wins. Among 75 competing law schools, Lewis & Clark’s team has reached the finals 15 times in the last 22 years, gone to the finals seven years in a row, and won first place three of those six years.
Competition activities are varied. Some students will argue before an appellate moot court and present a closing argument before real judges, enhancing the practical experience the students gain. Others will compete in legislative drafting and lobbying, drafting a bill that addresses a particular issue and then lobbying for it before faux legislators. Still other moot court competitions require students to write a 25- to 30-page brief based on a particular side of a current issue. During the competition’s oral argument, the participants are asked to argue both for and against the position they wrote about in their brief.
Professor Craig Johnston ’85, longtime coach of the Environmental Law Moot Court team, leads students through a three-part preparation process. Each fall, 27 of them take part in an eight-week session where they analyze a problem he has written, write a brief, and conduct six rounds of arguments. The top three participants go on to the national competition.
“There are often administrative law and constitutional law issues embedded in these problems. One of the nice things about these problems is that they are fairly complicated—and, from our perspective, the more complicated, the better,” he said. “They separate the wheat from the chaff.”
Johnston also is clinical director of the Earthrise Law Center, one of several legal clinics through which Lewis & Clark law students have an opportunity to gain real-world experience. The Earthrise Law Center represents citizens and nonprofit organizations in issues ranging from protecting endangered species and ecosystems to preventing and reducing air and water pollution.
Earthrise trains students through direct involvement in complex litigation, negotiation, and practice advocacy. Since it opened in 1996, it has trained more than 200 attorneys. Earthrise has been named one of the “winningest” legal clinics in the nation by The National Jurist and was nominated for the American Bar Association’s Award for Distinguished Environmental Achievement.
“The Legal Clinic was always my favorite part of law school and I find myself drawing on my experiences there at least once a week, every week, since I’ve started practicing law.”Jon Krauss ’91
Lewis & Clark initiated its legal clinics with the Northwestern Legal Clinic in 1971, formalizing a practice in which law professors would connect students with low-income individuals who needed legal advice and provide in-class training in criminal and civil cases.
Dick Slottee became director of the Northwestern Legal Clinic, now the Lewis & Clark Legal Clinic, in 1977 after working as a legal aid attorney. Over the years, he has watched demand for the clinic’s services climb. The clinic typically sees about 230 new clients each year, and the number of students involved ranges from 35 to 70, with another dozen or more participating during the summer. Technology has made it easier to manage cases and enhance the program’s educational components.
“We represent low-income and indigent people, but our primary goal is to provide clinical education to students at Lewis & Clark Law School,” he said. “Our hope is that the students can see a case from start to finish each semester.”
“The value derived from the Lewis & Clark Legal Clinic is immeasurable. It teaches practical skills and it provides students a special opportunity to put the legal theories we learn in an abstract manner in the classroom into practice. It trains interns how to interact with clients, supervising attorneys, and colleagues, and also prepares them to interact in a courtroom and with opposing counsel. The focus is on the students and the students are wholly supported.”Melissa Thaisz ’13
Slottee said the Lewis & Clark Legal Clinic narrowed its focus over the years as law practices became more specific and the law school created more specialized legal clinics. Among those are the Small Business Legal Clinic (SBLC), which gives students a chance to advise new and emerging businesses, cooperatives, nonprofit corporations, and housing authorities. Since opening in 2006, the SBLC has assisted 778 small businesses on more than 1,623 legal matters. Women, minorities, and recent immigrants own 79 percent of those businesses.
These, combined with externships, internships, moot court teams, and practical skills courses, are key elements in the law school’s strategy for providing students with leading-edge classroom education, real-world work experience, and opportunities for personal and professional growth.
“Clinics, externships, and internships help build a student’s confidence,” Spence said. “Students can feel a little overwhelmed by how big the law is and how much there is to know. When you handle a case and see that you can do it, that can be really exciting.”