egal education is a constantly developing, dynamic area of higher education, where responding to the needs of students and employers is not only extraordinarily important, but necessary. In May of 2008, Gonzaga implemented a redesigned curriculum that balanced historically important theoretical instruction of law with innovative practical legal education initiatives. Beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year, Gonzaga Law is taking the next step by increasing both the Experiential Learning requirement for students and adding four new options for the capstone Legal Research and Writing course.
“The American Bar Association, and some law schools, have taken extensive steps towards recognizing the importance of experiential learning in helping law schools fulfill their ethical duty to prepare students for a legal career, “ said Jane Korn, Dean of Gonzaga Law. “These latest changes demonstrate Gonzaga’s ongoing commitment to leading with student-focused innovation.”
Building On an Existing Experiential Curriculum
The May 2008 changes to Gonzaga’s curriculum were the culmination of three years of an intensive research and development process by the faculty, administration, and students of Gonzaga Law in response to what was seen as coming changes to the needs of legal education. The new curriculum focused student experience equally on both the theory and practice of the law.
For students entering law school in 2009, this new curriculum required classroom skills training through 8 credits of Legal Research and Writing and 4 credits of transactional and litigation skills labs. The new curriculum also required students to earn 3 experiential learning credits working with clients through an externship or internship, and allowed them to take up 15 experiential credits. Lauded as innovative, these changes have since proven effective in producing well-rounded students that employers consistently report as being extraordinarily well-prepared for legal work.
Expanding Experiential Learning
Beginning with the classes starting in Summer of 2014, the experiential learning requirement for students in the traditional 36 month program will be increased to 6 credits; students in the 24-month Accelerated J.D. program will be required to earn 12 credits. All students will continue to be allowed to take up to 15 total credits of experiential learning, the equivalent of one full term.
“Though the requirement is newly expanded, the students that have already graduated through this curriculum have proven the value of experiential learning, as well as the ability of our Clinic and Externship offices to provide rich and interesting experiences to our students” explained Korn. “The value of experiential learning has already been demonstrated by current students’ participation, which went far above and beyond the existing 3-credit requirement.”
Students currently average 8 credits of experiential learning, with many students choosing to participate in both a Clinic internship and Externship experience.
40 Years of Clinical Service Learning
Gonzaga’s Center for Law and Justice, the in-house University Legal Assistance Clinic (“ULA”), was founded 40 years ago and is now housed just inside the front doors of the Law School building. Students in the Clinic average about 18,000 case hours per year. The 300 or so cases each year, mostly serving low-income and at-risk clients, are assigned to one of the seven focused Clinics housed by ULA: Business Law, Elder Law, Environmental Law, Federal Tax Law, General Practice Law, Indian Law, and Mortgage Mediation / Foreclosure Prevention.
Professor Larry Weiser, who currently directs ULA, was one of the first students to participate in the Clinical Law program at Gonzaga during his time as a student. By the 1980s, students that chose to participate in the Legal Clinic were expected to spend 40 hours per week and 15 credits per semester in the program. “At that time, clinical law was in its infancy so it wasn’t always accepted as part of a law-school curriculum. It was a new idea,” says Weiser. “Since then, we’ve become part of the fabric of the education of the law school.”
“In the medical model, students in their third year are seeing patients and working in hospitals, and they’re expected to use their intelligence and their education to figure out what they need to do on their own with the help of the supervising practitioners. It’s that same theory. We’re confident that students have the ability to learn how to practice law in this setting.”
Gaining Legal Experience In Community Externships
In addition to the internship opportunity of University Legal Assistance, Gonzaga Law students also have the option of earning their Experiential Learning credits in externship placements. Students are supervised by practicing judges or attorneys and spend time immersed in the practice of law around the country.
“Externships give students an opportunity to delve into the real-world, day-to-day experiences of legal professionals,” explains Professor Inga Laurent, Director of the Externship program. “Students have a chance to put into practice the theory they learn in the classroom and almost every student agrees this opportunity is invaluable. Many say the experience is ‘truly transformative.’ “
Students serving Externships average about 44,000 hours per year in nonprofit and government placements. Placements by the Externship office have been increasing by about 6 percent per year. Students serving state externships often practice as Washington Rule 9 interns, which allows students to practice as lawyers under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Rule 9 interns regularly argue cases for their clients in courts up to the Washington State Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Focusing on Legal Research and Writing Choices
Legal Research and Writing is one of the cornerstones of legal work, and this most recent change to the Gonzaga program focuses on the real-world application of LR&W. Students will now be able to choose from Judicial Opinion Writing, Advanced Advocacy, Drafting for Litigation, and Transactional Drafting courses for their second year, fourth term capstone LR&W class.
“This simple refinement is just one more example of how our LR&W Program responds to the needs of the profession,” explained Professor Cheryl Beckett, Director of the Legal Research and Writing program. “By providing options that build on the previous skill-building classes in the first three terms, this capstone course assures that our students are well prepared for their clinical, externship, and internship experiences while in school, as well as for the many years of practice to follow.”
Decades of LR&W Experience At The Core
Gonzaga was one of the pioneers in a two-year legal research and writing program. Mary Kay Lundwall, the first Director of LR&W at Gonzaga introduced the two-year program in the early 1980s, when many law schools were still in the process of formalizing any LR&W style instruction. Many law schools now teach LR&W as a one-term or one-year course.
Since the 80s, Gonzaga’s LR&W instruction has continued to lead with innovating developments. The current eight-credit, four term curriculum integrates tightly with the required first-year litigation and transactional skills labs, where students start gaining practical experience from the first day of classes. These new course options will allow students to focus their capstone experience on the type of legal work that most interests them.
Going Above And Beyond Current National Requirements
When considering what the ABA requires for experiential learning and skills training, and what other law schools count for those credits, Gonzaga Law students benefit from a much richer experiential learning program.
Currently, the American Bar Association has no specific requirements for “experiential learning.” ABA Standard 302(a)(4) outlines that students must receive “substantial instruction” in professional skills, while Standard 302 (b) outlines that schools should offer “substantial opportunities” for real-life practice experiences, but does not require that any school fulfill all student requests to participate in these experiences. The ABA indicates in their interpretation of this standard that a variety of classes that include counseling, interviewing, negotiation, problem solving, drafting, alternative dispute resolution, and management of legal work can all fulfill this requirement.
Utilizing the ABA’s much more broad definition, students at Gonzaga benefit from being required to complete between 18 and 24 credits of skills-training qualified classes for graduation.
“For the last 101 years, Gonzaga Law has taken pride in being in front of the pack when it comes to creating legal education that pursues justice for all, while finding solutions to the immediate challenges facing students and the community,” said Korn. “This re-dedication to experiential learning is just the latest example of Gonzaga’s dedication to innovative methods of legal education.”