Banking Law Practicum – The Faculty Perspective

Yesterday, we featured a post from current third-year law student, Ashleigh Greene, in which she discussed her experience in the Banking Law Practicum. We know many of you may be wondering what a professor thinks about when designing a practicum course, and today, we have an interview with James Pannebecker, the professor who led the Banking Law Practicum. In the course catalog, this course is described as follows:

“This simulation of the Office of General Counsel, Elk Cliff Bank, will explore the rich, forward-looking environment of an in-house banking law practice in a time of financial crisis and, in the process, impart a broad exposure to the discipline of financial institutions law. The Office of General Counsel will hire new staff, negotiate an assistance agreement with the U.S. Treasury Department, help the bank develop a project plan to address the most comprehensive financial reform legislation since the 1930s, and assist with implementing the statute and regulations as developments occur in Washington and the states. As part of Elk Cliff Bank’s corporate team, within a growing firm that needs lawyers who understand its business as well as the intricacies of banking law, the Office of General Counsel will negotiate and draft contracts; analyze and implement new legislation and regulations; advise lobbying efforts; prepare resolutions and proxy materials; write concise business memos; assist in product development; revise consumer forms; manage priorities in a fast-paced, dynamic environment; and set reasonable expectations within the Office of General Counsel and the bank.”

Here are Professor Pannebecker’s thoughts on his practicum course:

For you, what do you hope your students get out of your practicum?

I hope it informs and eases their transition to the year after 3L, “the real world.”

What do you think about when designing this kind of course?

I want to cover the curriculum that would be covered in a traditional class, but through realistic experiences that simulate what actually happens in law and business practice. I want to design assignments that combine law, business, writing, thinking, rhetoric, issue-spotting, research, analysis, intuition, social responsibility, ethics, humor, psychology, prioritization, and much more.

In what ways is a practicum/your practicum different from a lecture-based course?

A practicum flows with current developments and unexpected diversions, without being tied to a linear, chapter-like, prescribed progression. In this respect, a practicum is more life-like, more like the years after 3L. It requires as much discipline as a lecture-based course, perhaps more, in that the soon-to-be lawyer is plopped into problem-solving that requires self-motivation, self-teaching, social interaction, always impending deadlines, and what some folks might consider “nonlegal” skills (although I’ve never met a good lawyer whose skills are only “legal”).

For the instructor, “teaching” is more spontaneous. I doubt that a practicum can be effectively “taught” by worming into books and cases or by someone who has only limited experience in everyday practice. As much as the professor may prepare for a particular class, that preparation will be almost useless without the many years of varied experience he or she must bring to an environment that cannot be fully scripted.

Are there things you can do, topics you can cover in a practicum course that would be harder to accomplish in a lecture-based class?

In a practicum, students can be “lawyers” and, due to the typically small class size, the instructor can observe and facilitate like a supervisor in a law practice environment.

As in practice, frequent assignments call for immediate attention, prioritization, input and feedback. Students who fail to keep up will be spotted and counseled. Those who excel will be recognized and rewarded. Teamwork can and will be quickly appreciated.

In the Fall 2011 Banking Law Practicum, staying on top of the developments occurring in Washington was an essential element of the course. After all, we were the Office of General Counsel, Elk Cliff Bank, and we were responsible for being the bank’s front line for implementing Dodd-Frank financial reform. We discussed developments as they happened. Our CEO would have been very disappointed if we had waited a week or two to tell him about changes. While this approach might be taken in a lecture-based course, I think it is ideal for a practicum, where “lawyers” with assigned areas of responsibility (rather than a lecturer) can be expected to promptly report on developments.

In a lecture-based course, an instructor might be reluctant to “digress” when developments unrelated to a scheduled curriculum, such as a recess appointment or a sexual harassment complaint against a law school, hit national headlines. In a practicum course, discussion of these developments is not a “diversion” at all, but a valuable, realistic example of what class participants may face one year hence.

Do you think the experiences your students are having in your practicum will help them be better lawyers? If so, how/why?

The practicum experience will enable attorneys to hit the ground running, while some colleagues who still are essentially “law students” will lack the experience gained in my practicum. For example, my attorneys will not be surprised by childish behavior in a supposedly sophisticated business environment; they will not be thrown off base when a supervisor asks them to drop what they’re doing and handle something else; they will not draft a 10-page memo packed with “legalese” and send it to a nonlawyer executive; they will check corporate policy and consult with other colleagues before responding to a shareholder’s inquiry; they will not freak out when asked to handle a topic they’ve never heard of before.

What do you think the hardest thing is for students in terms of adjusting to this different style of learning?

I think the hardest thing for students in this style of learning may be realizing that mistakes will make a huge difference the year after 3L. Tests aren’t exercises any more; they affect other peoples’ lives. So their handling of an assignment has repercussions far beyond a grade.

Any particularly favorite moments from this past semester’s class?

After the bank’s CEO (actually, an actor) led a meeting on Dodd-Frank and asked questions of various attorneys who had responsibility for certain provisions, he and I stepped out of the room and overhead someone say, “My palms were sweaty” and someone else, “Is this what it’s going to be like next year?”

At one point, the Office of General Counsel was focused on determining how the bank’s proxy statement needed to be changed to implement several Dodd-Frank provisions. An email appeared from a fellow who wanted to nominate a director (secretly sent by a friend of a student, not by the professor). One student promptly answered, saying thank you for the inquiry and indicating that the bank would respond as soon as possible. Another student sent a detailed email explaining the law on the subject. A certain amount of heat animated team discussions between then and our next meeting, when we discussed whether the response had been approved by the rest of the class, whether the emails had been sent according to bank policies and procedures, and whether the sender might have been a “corporate gadfly,” and other issues.

When the class began to work on final projects, we eliminated a few Thursday meetings. One of those weeks, I asked the class to attend at least an hour of the law school’s Fringe Lending Symposium. On Monday, the General Counsel sent an email conveying the CEO’s disappointment that no one except the General Counsel had come to the “company event.” The second paragraph of the email described the CEO’s blowing up about whether our Dodd-Frank implementation plan was complete and urging the Office of General Counsel to double-check and make sure it covered everything. When we discussed this email at our next meeting, several folks pointed out that the second paragraph was unfair, so we talked about how we might handle it – which demonstrated that corporate emails can be as juvenile as arguments with spouses and friends when they deteriorate from the point of anger to unrelated jabs.

How do you feel your class fits into a student’s larger law school experience?

The first two years help students develop a solid base of legal skills, including an ability to spot issues. Practicum and clinical courses help students apply these skills while expanding their legal, business and practical knowledge. The more varied a lawyer’s experience and knowledge, the more effectively he or she can identify and analyze issues and help clients solve problems. The Banking Law Practicum also reminds us that we need other smart people, many of whom are not lawyers, as much as or more than they need us.

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