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Program builds practical legal skills
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
May 23, 1997
Kiernan Ignacio is confident she's ready for her new job. She has a good grounding in legal theory and analysis and a solid base of practical skills.
Ignacio, who graduated with a J.D. last weekend and will soon join the Hartford real estate firm Dechert, Price & Rhoads, was a member of the first class to take part in a new five-credit program at the School of Law that offers aspiring lawyers practical training in the skills they will need.
"Most law schools teach you law but don't teach you the skills you need as a lawyer," Ignacio said.
Leslie Levin, an associate professor of law and director of the program, said the changing economic climate has heightened the need for law schools to provide such practical training. "As the legal economy has changed, some firms have done less to offer skills training because they are looking more at the bottom line," she said. In addition, more and more students are going to unsupervised settings after law school - as solo practitioners or in very small firms.
"It used to be it was otherwise possible to go through law school and not receive any systematic training in how to perform some of these skills," Levin said.
In 1992, an American Bar Association study, the McCrate Report, called on law schools to do more to train students for practice. The School of Law introduced the new program - known as Lawyering Process - as a requirement for all first-year law students in fall 1994.
The first semester involves a course in legal analysis, research and writing.
Bethany Appleby, another recent J.D. graduate, said she gained a lot from the course, ranging from what types of law are found in different publications, how to find them in the library, and how to write a persuasive brief using the correct legal format and citations.
This part of the program is found in some form in most law schools. However, UConn's new program replaced large classes of 65-70 with small classes, while at the same time using mostly faculty members rather than teaching assistants to grade papers.
The second semester involves an entirely new course that teaches students such skills as interviewing, counseling and negotiating, as well as informal advocacy, legal problem-solving and contract drafting, largely through playing roles. The students are taught in groups of as few as two or three students with one faculty member.
He said it's important to know the types of questions to ask to extract the underlying legal issues: "A client doesn't come in saying, 'I have a tort problem.'"
Videotapes of students practicing the new skills are reviewed by faculty members, who discuss the students' performance with them.
"We enable every first-year student to personally engage in every one of these skills and get feedback from an instructor on each of them," Levin said. "Not many law schools do that."
One of the reasons why few law schools have introduced such a program is that it is labor-intensive and therefore costly, Levin said. The program is taught by five full-time faculty members, with a number of adjunct faculty who are practicing lawyers involved in the spring.
The program also imposes a heavy workload on students, who take four other classes at the same time in the fall, three in the spring.
"Some might think it burdensome," Ignacio said. "It is a lot of work."
The type of work is new, too. "It's challenging because the students are put in simulated situations," Levin said. "It is a different kind of learning for many students than they have engaged in before. It's less traditional than sitting in lecture courses or other classes."
The program is not always popular with students. "Many students didn't particularly like it," Appleby said, "though most - when pressed - would admit it was useful."