New Upper-Level Courses Give Hands-On Experience

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You don’t learn to swim by reading a book. UNC School of Law professors and administrators apply that aphorism to preparing students to excel in legal careers. In the past year, the law school added six new transition-to-practice courses to the 16 already on its roster and has another five ready to go for the coming year. This summer, the school offered planning grants to entice faculty to add even more.

Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Bob Mosteller, who also is the J. Dickson Phillips Distinguished Professor, pushed for the innovative hands-on courses that give second- and third-year law students an opportunity to work through the practical aspects of the legal concepts they’ve learned.

“Each of these courses adds to the preparation our students receive to become practicing lawyers,” Mosteller says. “The courses have to stay small – about 15 students in each – but with 25 courses, we can serve hundreds of students. The scale and sophistication of these courses, and bringing in so many of our finest scholars and teachers, is what makes us unique.”

The intensive courses require quite a bit of extra work for the faculty, so the law school set aside money for two types of planning grants – a $5,000 grant to create a new course and teach it, and a $2,000 grant to organize a course that an adjunct would teach. Each new course will be offered at least twice and won’t replace one of the core courses the faculty member teaches.

William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor John Conley created a transition-to-practice course in biotechnology and life sciences law that he taught last spring. He covered issues for the prospective patent lawyers in the class, then taught the business and financial side necessary for biotech startup activity, and finished up with biomedical research and clinical ethics. He brought in practitioners and other experts, including Arlene Davis of the medical school faculty who also is an adjunct at the law school, to provide basic literacy in the subjects, then put together practical problems to work on.

By semester’s end, students emerged with experience drafting and negotiating a term sheet, the first step in a venture capital investment; writing an opinion letter about the validity of a patent; or presenting an ethics consultation to doctors and hospital administrators about parents divided over whether to authorize a new treatment for their child.

“In class, the students were constantly working like lawyers, researching, drafting documents, presenting findings to clients,” Conley says. “The practical side is extremely complicated. Giving students a head start in translating their classroom knowledge into practical knowledge was a real advantage to them.”

Immediate feedback from the professor and outside experts sharpened students’ ability, making them more attractive in the job market.

“Employers are being a lot more demanding with respect to students’ applied skills,” Conley says. “They want new graduates to be able to do paying work on complicated problems at a high level right away. In a tight job market, the better case you can make that you can do that, the better off you are.”

In Graham Kenan Professor Melissa Jacoby’s business bankruptcy course last spring, students wrote substantive client letters and cash collateral motions, created a wiki of terms important for commercial and corporate reorganization lawyers, and generated materials for an hour’s worth of class discussion, among other projects. Jacoby aimed to give her students feedback similar to what they might receive in the professional world.

“I’m hoping the advanced concepts will stick with them more because they had to take a higher level of responsibility for absorbing them,” she says.

In his first week in Aubrey L. Brooks Professor Don Hornstein’s Regulation and Deregulation class last spring, Andrew Baird, now a 3L, had to gather everything that a client would need to obtain a license to start a taxi company in Chapel Hill.

“We had to work through and think of the logistical and practical realities as much as the pure legal theory,” Baird says. “Knowing the rules is great; learning how to apply them is better.”

Throughout the class, Hornstein used situations from the news that would require people to hire a lawyer. He divided his class into two law firms and presented himself as the client, then “gave them very little guidance, just as in the real world.” His assignments dealt with the merger of Duke Energy and Progress Energy, the dispute between Rex Hospital and WakeMed, and obtaining permission for a clinic to acquire a kidney dialysis machine. When he didn’t provide enough information, he told his students to “sue me,” and the faux law firms worked collaboratively to file a court complaint.

“It was typical of the way real-life lawyers are paid real-life dollars all the time,” Hornstein says. “The transition-to-practice courses teach them skills that are transportable across fields, not just in the area of their specialty.”

Baird’s experience taught him to ask the right questions and choose the best arguments to advance first.

“Your job is to get the client where he wants to be as soon as possible to reduce his cost and his time worrying about legal situations,” Baird says. “In our legal and economic environment, clients are much more interested in lawyers adding value than adding more legal layers. It’s that balancing act you don’t get on a normal law school exam.”

Traditionally, law schools rely on school law clinics and summer associate positions to give students practical experience. But clinics don’t have room for every student, and the school has no control over what students learn in summer internships.

“Medical schools don’t tell their students to work at hospitals during the summer,” Hornstein says. “They organize rounds. Law firms are under pressure not to bill clients for on-the-job training of associates. Doing more of the training in law school is long overdue.”

-August 21, 2012

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