New Opportunities for First Year Students

The legendary Professor Kingsfield famously tells first-year law students in the movie The Paper Chase, “You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.” The “skull full of mush” sentiment is a bit much— as was Professor Kingsfield in general—but the product he identified remains the oft-repeated goal of legal education. Law students are to be taught to think like lawyers.

The ongoing debate, of course, involves how this goal is best accomplished. While the case method and Socratic teaching approach remains the staple of legal education, other teaching methods have been increasingly utilized in law schools across the nation to prepare students for successful careers in the legal profession. In particular, most law schools now provide a range of opportunities for students to learn the craft of lawyering through actual work in a legal setting, whether through clinical experiences, externships, or mentoring programs.

Although such opportunities have been offered at the Pepperdine University School of Law for many years, the entering Class of 2015 encounters a greater emphasis on such learning models through two new developments: significant changes to the first-year curriculum, and the introduction of a new alumni mentoring program. Both the curricular changes and the mentoring program have the same goal in mind: to provide greater opportunities for students to interact directly with practicing attorneys and actual clients and, through these opportunities, be even better prepared to enter the legal profession.

Changes to the First-Year Curriculum

For years, Pepperdine’s first-year curriculum has included more units per subject than the average law school—5 to 6 units per course spread out over two semesters compared to 3 to 4 units per course in a single semester. In addition, Pepperdine’s list of upper-division required courses has been more numerous than the average law school— nine required courses, totaling approximately 25 credit hours. As aspiring lawyers soon learn, there are arguments on both sides of this issue, but one downside of such a robust mandatory curriculum is that students have restricted opportunities to participate in time-intensive clinical courses and externships during their second and third years of law school.

With this in mind, the faculty voted this past spring to reduce the units per subject for most first-year courses while shifting three formerly upper-division courses into the first-year curriculum (specifically, both of the courses Constitutional Law and Legal Ethics). As a result, beginning with the Class of 2015, Pepperdine Law students will only have six upper-division required courses instead of nine. This will allow significantly greater flexibility in scheduling and allow more students to engage in clinical courses and externships.

The Preceptor Program

The other major change impacting this year’s entering class is the introduction of a new mentoring program called the Preceptor Program. When I met Dean Tacha in the summer of 2011, her first request for me was that I research the best law school mentoring programs in the country. My search led to a robust leadership development program at the Elon University School of Law in North Carolina. The hallmark of Elon’s program is what they have termed the Preceptor Program. When I shared Elon’s program with Dean Tacha, it was evident that this was exactly the type of program she was hoping to see at Pepperdine.

The term “preceptor” is a new term to most law students, but it is very familiar to aspiring physicians. A preceptor is simply an expert that provides practical experiences to a student. Although preceptor is a prominent term in the world of medical education, the concept of learning through practical experiences provided by an expert is one that translates easily to the world of legal education. Pepperdine’s new Preceptor Program, following the example of Elon, connects two or three first-year law students with a law school alumnus who is practicing law as an attorney or a judge in the local area. The preceptors agree to serve in a mentoring capacity for the students throughout their first year of law school.

Pepperdine’s new program needed 75 local, practicing attorneys and judges to function, and the response from our alumni was fantastic. Our list of preceptors was filled by early summer and included a wide range of participants, ranging from senior partners in large firms to junior associates in the profession for only a year or two. While Dean Tacha implemented the program to provide first-year students the opportunity to witness law in action and connect doctrine to practice, it seems that the program will prove beneficial to the preceptors as well. In addition to an increased connection to the law school, the preceptors should receive personal satisfaction in realizing that they are truly helping shape the future of the legal profession.

The preceptors are asked to meet with their mentees three times each semester. Although the meetings may take different forms for different situations, the program proposes three different ideas for the interactions: (i) take the students to work to witness the preceptor in action; (ii) attend a class with the students and follow up with a discussion of how law school classes translate into the real world of law; and (iii) meet with the students in a social environment for coffee or lunch. The hope is that such meetings will serve as a springboard for discussions that produce valuable learning experiences that would not have occurred in a traditional classroom.

Where We Stand

It is obviously too soon to gauge the impact these major changes will have on the future lawyers that comprise the Class of 2015. However, it is encouraging to hear both recent graduates and older alumni express how much they would have appreciated the opportunities these changes provide. Many have expressed a desire to have been more involved in hands-on experiences such as clinics and externships, and they similarly state that they would have loved a program such as the Preceptor Program. It is most encouraging to hear these practicing attorneys explain why they would have appreciated these opportunities. They argue that actual experiences in the legal world not only provide valuable lessons in that timeless pursuit of learning how to think like a lawyer, but also in learning how to be one in practice.

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