An Outsider’s View of the Third Year Skills Immersion

by Brett Twitty

I guess this is about as close as I’ll ever come to being an embedded reporter. Last Thursday afternoon, I had the unexpected opportunity to serve as a client as part of the skills immersion portion of our new third year, and it was a great experience.

If you’ve been following the news at our law school closely, you know this is a very exciting time at W&L Law. Yes, it’s the start of classes, but this year also marks the occasion of the first full implementation of our new third year experience. In the coming semesters, 80 of our 3Ls will participate in a year-long program that will provide them with a range of experiences intended to better prepare them for the intellectual, practical and interpersonal challenges of their future lives as lawyers.

The program begins with a two-week long practice skills immersion designed to familiarize students with many of the skills they will need to effectively conduct their work in the coming months. This semester’s immersion focuses on litigation practice, while next semester’s will be geared more towards transactional practice, and the participating students are currently engaged in a variety of litigation-oriented skill development activities including fictionalized client meetings, negotiations, mediations, depositions and trials, as well as workshops on drafting, case development, and opening and closing statements.

3L students engaged in a client intake interview. These exercises were filmed (see camera in the foreground) so that students can watch themselves and improve.

3L students engaged in a client intake interview. These exercises were filmed (see camera in the foreground) so that students can watch themselves and improve.

So that you might be able to better understand just how this process works, let’s use the Client Interviewing and Counseling portion (the activity in which I was able to participate) of the syllabus as an example.

Students began the learning process by attending a larger, group presentation led by a faculty member on how to interview a new client. They then broke into small groups to complete exercises allowing them to further familiarize them with how to conduct such an interview. The students then applied the knowledge and lessons gleaned from these experiences in a realistic, albeit fictionalized, client meeting.

As part of this exercise, the students had the experience of being both a lawyer and a client, and according to many of our faculty members, they learn almost as much (if not more) from being the client as from the lawyer. As a client they get a sense of the kinds of questions they wished their lawyer would have asked, the things they wished she would have said, the things they hoped she would have done, and these impressions will likely inform their future client interactions and meetings. These more hands-on experiences were further supplemented with readings and assignments intended to introduce students to different client counseling approaches, themes and concepts.

Last but not least, the students then came back together as a large group and watched a Client Counseling demonstration performed by a faculty member. And that’s less than two days of the skills immersion.

Furthermore, each mock exercise, whether it be a client meeting, a negotiation or a simulated courtroom activity, is being recorded and compiled for review and evaluation. This footage will be used to give students a sense of the things they do well and the areas in which they will need to improve as they plan and prepare for the upcoming semester. As participating student Chris Fetzer commented, “I have been able to identify my strengths and weaknesses through my participation in the interactive simulations. Cognizance of both will benefit me and those I represent once I begin to serve real clients this fall as a member of the Criminal Justice Clinic.”

Students often receive immediate feedback if their assigned faculty member is observing their interaction, and each specific immersion activity (the new client meeting, for example) is graded by this instructor. In addition to these various forms of feedback, through the various exercises and presentations, students also have the opportunity to cultivate some sense of what makes a successful interview, negotiation or deposition, for example, and these lessons they will be able to carry with them as they move into the profession.

The skills immersion is a very small part of what our students will be doing as part of the new third year. The core of the program features four “hands-on” modules, at least one of which must include real-client exposure (i.e. either a clinic or an externship). The remaining modules are practice-based “practicum” courses that simulate a variety of legal environments and cover the array of legal subject matter, including Family Law, Corporate Law, International Human Rights, and Labor and Employment Law. Students also will take a year-long professionalism course where they will study and reflect on legal ethics, civility in practice, civic leadership, pro bono service, and law firm economics.

W&L’s new program will be required beginning 2011-2012 but is optional for current third-year students. Well over half of the 3L class elected to enter the inaugural year of the program this fall, doubling the expected enrollment in this first year of partial operation.

For more information on our third year, please see our webpage on our third year curricular reform.

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