Professor Gerry Hess graduated from law school rich in knowledge but deficient in the tools of the trade.
“When I walked out of law school, I was really good at legal research, analysis and writing, but I had never interviewed a client, or done any legal document development,” recalls Hess, who began practicing more than 25 years ago.
Like most young lawyers of the day, Hess received his early training on the job, a luxury law firms can’t afford in an increasingly competitive environment.
Today they seek law school graduates already equipped with fundamental skills, says Dean Jane Korn, and law schools are having to adjust.
“We’re seeing a shift from the purely doctrinal to an integration of skills courses with doctrinal courses, and Gonzaga is at the forefront of that shift.
“A few years ago, the faculty realized that graduating students needed to be more practice-ready,” she says, “and I think that it is the model that is coming.”
Filling the skills gap
“Both looked at what law schools were doing successfully and what was missing,” says Hess, who is a noted legal educator and co-director of the Institute for Law Teaching & Learning.
“They were good at legal research and reasoning skills but there was another set of skills that weren’t part of every student’s experience.”
Hess led a nine-member curriculum review committee through a year-long process of redesigning the curriculum to better prepare students to practice law.
“We wanted to preserve the strengths of traditional law school education, but add an emphasis on skills and professionalism,” he recalls. “The new curriculum does all three.”
At the heart of the effort are a pair of skills and professionalism labs in the first year curriculum. They are designed to confront students with professionalism issues as they are learning both litigation and transactional practice skills.
“The skills labs are a critical part of the new curriculum,” adds Hess. “They teach skills and professionalism from the first day and carry it through the entire year.”
“Firms” are a key element
The labs are mandatory for first-year students, who are sorted within them into four- to six-member “firms.”
Firms are assigned a series of simulation exercises designed to teach such technical skills as how to conduct a deposition or prepare and present an oral argument. Working in small groups, students also learn the value of collaboration.
The labs use as content the substantive law being taught concurrently in a set of doctrinal courses. In the fall, students study Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, and Torts; in the spring, they study Contracts and Property.
To perform the skills lab exercises, students must master the law behind them.
“The oral arguments are especially telling,” Hess says. “(The students’) experience to that point had been being in the classroom and talking about the law, but now they stood in front of a ‘judge’ and made a five-minute argument.
“Across the board, they felt like they had made a first, important step,” he continues. “They had to know the underlying law – which they learned really well – and they had learned to craft an argument. They were learning substantive law, but in a different way than it had been taught before.”
Besides the Skills Labs and doctrinal courses, first-year students study legal research and writing – long a mainstay of a Gonzaga legal education – and take an overview course called “Perspectives on the Law.”
Blending the doctrinal and the practical
In the second year of the new curriculum, they continue their study of research and writing, expand their doctrinal education, and take courses in Evidence, Constitutional Law, and Professional Responsibility.
The curriculum culminates in the third year, when students will put their skills into action by fulfilling an externship with a practicing lawyer or judge or participating in the school’s Law Clinic.
By the time they are ready to leave Gonzaga, Hess says, students will be able to “walk out the door confident and prepared to function as competent lawyers.”