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Local law schools seek to arm students with real world experience

Clinics, new areas of study offer practical knowledge

Law schools can’t employ students, but San Diego schools of law have developed programs and clinics to ensure their graduates have the practical skills and experience that give them a competitive edge in an evolving and increasingly demanding legal field. Some programs are teaching students how to create policy while others offer the opportunity to learn while providing pro bono legal services to startup tech companies, small businesses or nonprofits that might not otherwise have the resources to hire an attorney.

The Thomas Jefferson School of Law launched the Small Business Law Center (SBLC) in January. Students, under direct supervision of practicing attorneys, provide SBLC clients with a variety of pro bono services such as drafting, negotiating and reviewing contracts, and assisting with tax and employment issues and property transactions. Participating students gain practical experience in problem solving, client development, drafting and critical thinking.

The Technology Entrepreneurship Law Clinic at the University of San Diego School of Law provides students with mentoring from practicing attorneys. Students develop real world experience by assisting technology startups in the internationally recognized connect Springboard mentoring program. The clinic is designed to provide USD law school students with a unique view into the skills required and business issues faced by tech startups.

“It’s difficult in a law school setting, especially intellectual property law, to give the type of work you do when you actually enter practice,” said USD School of Law Professor Ted Sichelman, who helped create the clinic launched in 2010.

According to Sichelman, students apply for 10-12 internships each year that allow them the opportunity to work directly with the companies in Connect’s Springboard program. Under the supervision of attorneys at firms such as Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP, Birch Stewart Kolasch & Birch LLP, and Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, students learn to draft employment contracts, nondisclosure agreements and patent filings, meet deadlines, perform due diligence, and other practical skills.

California Western School of Law students are learning practical skills in a simulated law office setting where they work on simulated cases that contain realistic ethical issues. Cal Western started its Skills Training for Ethical and Preventive Practice and career Satisfaction (STEPPS) program several years ago in response to a demand from employers to graduate more practice-ready graduates.

The first of its kind in the country — Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn. developed a similar program last year — the ethics clinic is now mandatory for all second year law students. In the STEPPS program students complete advanced research and writing assignments, and learn and practice fundamental skills like interviewing, case rounds and case planning, negotiation, mediation, problem solving and prevention analysis. Through case handling and course work students develop a portfolio that demonstrates their skills and accomplishments. The simulated law office setting also allows students to explore work environment and career satisfaction issues, and evaluate future career options.

To help prospective law students gain a better understanding of what it takes to become a lawyer and to promote diversity in law schools and the legal profession, Cal Western began partnering with the Consensus Organizing Center at San Diego State University on a joint program in fall 2010.

Marion Cloete, Associate Director of Diversity Services at Cal Western, said the Achieve. Inspire. Motivate. (A.I.M.) pipeline program “seeks to empower, motivate, and inspire interested undergraduate students from underrepresented or economically disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue a legal education. Special attention is given to the development of legal writing skills, speaking and oral argument skills, mentoring by law students and attorneys, and instruction on applying to law school.”

According to Cloete, the program attracts many students who are the first in their families to graduate from college or consider graduate school. Participants become familiar with the law school environment and develop a practical understanding of the path to law school, demystifying legal education and making a law career accessible to potential future lawyers.

The new Center for Sports Law and Policy offers students at Thomas Jefferson School of Law the opportunity to examine issues at the center of the amateur and professional world of sports and make recommendations on policy changes that potentially translate into rules and regulations. For example, according to the center’s director Rodney K. Smith, the center invites top lawyers and policy makers to conferences for the purpose of considering issues such as violence in sports. The center then prepares a white paper with recommendations to make sports safer for participating athletes. Students working on policy projects take on specific issues, offer solutions, and in the process develop a portfolio that shows problem solving capabilities that will make them more marketable in the market place.

“We’re trying to get our students involved in solving the major problems in sports because those are the types of people who will be hired in the 21st century,” Smith said. “Law firms don’t need people to do document preparation. There are systems now for that. They need someone who has a track record that shows they can deal with these kinds of problems.”

For TJSL students and their peers at law schools throughout the country, theory plus practice equals the ability to solve problems. Armed with practical experience and problem solving skills, San Diego law school graduates entering the marketplace may very well find that the best defense really is a superior offense.

-James is an Encinitas-based freelance writer.

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California Western School of Law

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California Western School of Law Executive(s):

Phyllis Marion

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Niels Schaumann

  • President, Dean

Pamela Duffy

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Rikki Ueda

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Barbara Cox

  • Professor, Vice Dean, Faculty and Academic Affairs

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