By Tom Jarvis
New Hampshire is full of history and firsts in the nation. Some of these firsts are well-known: It was the first state to declare its independence from England in 1775, Samuel Shelburne of Portsmouth became the first Attorney General of the United States in 1789, and the first-ever meeting of the Republican Party took place in Exeter in 1853.
Some New Hampshire firsts are lesser known: The first potato ever planted in America was in Londonderry in 1719, the first alarm clock was invented in Concord in 1787, and the nation’s first women’s strike took place in Dover in 1828.
One of the most unique and recent firsts in the Granite State was the implementation of the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law’s (UNH Law) Daniel Webster Scholar (DWS) Honors Program – the first bar alternative program in the nation – in 2005.
The DWS program was named after Daniel Webster, one of the most prominent American lawyers of the 19th century, arguing over 200 cases before the United States Supreme Court, who later served as the 14th and 19th US Secretary of State.
A collaborative effort of the New Hampshire Supreme Court (NHSC), the New Hampshire Bar Association (NHBA), the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners, and UNH Law, the program was designed to provide a comprehensive, client-ready legal education to close the gap between legal education and legal practice, consisting of robust simulations, regular assessments, and hands-on practical training from volunteer lawyers, judges, and court staff. Instead of being tested in a room for a finite period, lawyers are tested over the course of two years.
With 18 new graduates in May 2023, the DWS program has graduated 313 new lawyers without requiring them to take the traditional two-day bar exam.
“It’s the first and still the only competency-based bar admission program,” DWS program director Courtney Brooks says. “It’s the only program like it in the country that couples practice-readiness training with bar admission. Students gain practical skills and simulations for essentially a two-year bar exam, and along the way, their skills are assessed by bar examiners. At the end, they are admitted to the bar.”
The idea for the program began with retired NHSC Chief Justice Linda Dalianis in 1995. The American Bar Association’s Task Force on Law Schools and the Professional Development had just released a report – which came to be known as the MacCrate report, named after task force chair, Robert MacCrate – on what the ABA felt were shortcomings in the training of new lawyers. Dalianis, who was on the Superior Court at the time, agreed with the report’s findings.
“I had been involved in some bar admissions and was told that more than 50 percent of the new lawyers each year were opening their own practices just as solos, and that concerned me because these folks really didn’t have much in the way of support systems,” Dalianis says. “In my opinion, most people in those days didn’t have enough of the practical skills that they needed to be able to represent people right away without people to turn to in the same office, so to speak. I knew from my experience that getting good mentorship was kind of haphazard. I happened to be one of the fortunate ones who benefitted from good mentorship, and I hate to think what I would have done without that, but it was a topic of consideration.”
Dalianis talked with then chair of the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners, Frederick Coolbroth, Sr., about creating a six-week summer boot camp for new lawyers that could be a requirement for bar admission. Along with key people from Maine and Vermont, they put together a group called the Northern New England Task Force of Bar Admissions to explore the idea.
“At the end of the day, it was too ambitious, it was too complicated, and the state supreme courts, including ours, were very hesitant to invest any budgetary funds in creating such a program,” Dalianis says. “Ultimately, after more than five years of work, the whole thing kind of fell apart. Maine and Vermont backed out and New Hampshire was the only one left standing. But now that I was on the Supreme Court, I had a little more leverage and I was not willing to let the idea die.”
She then formed a new committee of only in-state people to come up with ideas to bring her vision to life. This committee, later named the Daniel Webster Scholar Advisory Committee, was chaired by Dalianis and included Fred Coolbroth, UNH Law Professor Sophie Sparrow, NHSC Justice James Duggan, Bruce Felmly, Larry Vogelman, then NHBA president Martha Van Oot, and then UNH Law Dean John Hudson.
“We essentially tailored whatever we did to New Hampshire and ensured that the law school offered enough practical, on-the-ground curriculum to make sure that the graduates were, in fact, client-ready when they finished law school – or at least more client-ready than they had previously been,” Dalianis says.
Coolbroth says that by 2004, the committee had firmed up the program.
“A very important part of this in terms of the Board of Bar Examiners going along with it was, number one, it was a pilot program, and number two, it was an honors program,” Coolbroth says. “Some folks thought we were trying to come up with a way to get a diploma privilege to practice, but that was certainly nothing I was interested in embracing.”
After persuading the law school faculty to try the program and getting enough votes on the NHSC to change the rules, the committee was ready to launch the program as a three-year pilot. But they realized the law school needed to create a position for someone to run the program, so it was decided that UNH Law professor John Garvey would be the DWS Program’s first director.
“They had an idea of what they wanted to accomplish, but they hired me to do the developmental part of it,” Garvey says. “I went through an entire year of figuring out what it would look like before we started bringing students into it. I looked at what was already available because I don’t believe in wasting resources, especially when you’re on a shoestring budget.”
Once news of the program began to spread and they started the process of selecting students, Garvey and the committee heard some skepticism from the legal community.
“If you’re going to create a program that’s going to be ground-breaking, particularly in the legal field, there is always going to be skepticism,” Garvey says. “One of the first things I did when I became director was to put on my mediator’s hat to step out of the fray and look at where people might be coming from. I thought to myself, ‘some of this [skepticism] is well-founded. We shouldn’t just accept that there’s going to be a new program and that it will be valid.’ I immediately tried to bring in as many people as possible instead of just being the leader. I would call people and ask them if they’d be willing to volunteer, and that included judges. We just kept building it and improving it.”
Garvey then approached the judges at the federal court about listening to the students’ arguments since they would be simulating litigation of a federal case. The judges agreed.
“Then we got court reporters involved and started getting transcripts. They would come to the conference room at the law school where we were doing the depositions and they would show the students what a real-time deposition is,” Garvey says. “Eventually, we had a very robust simulation with court reporters for the transcripts and depositions, with actors who come in and play the roles, and then briefs that get filed with the clerk of court, which we could do on the internet.”
Garvey continues: “It was a win-win for the volunteers. For example, why would court reporters want to do it? First of all, they were excited at the idea of being able to teach these young lawyers and give them real experience, but just like lawyers, they have a CLE requirement – they have a pro bono requirement – and it satisfied that requirement to do this program. So, they were getting something from it and the students were also getting something from it. Also, if you practice in New Hampshire, when you get out of school, who are you going to call the first time you need a deposition? There are a lot of other examples, but that gives a sense of why it was successful. It was a community effort.”
Garvey acknowledges that the people who were in the first class were really taking a chance.
“They were willing to go into a program that was a three-year pilot program that had no track record and no graduates. They were willing to then go out and look for jobs with people who might well be cynical,” Garvey says. “They were pioneers and they should get a lot of credit for that.”
Garvey retired from the program in May 2020 and was succeeded as director by Courtney Brooks.
NHBA Board of Governors Strafford County Governor Joshua Wyatt was among the 13 graduates of the first class of Webster Scholars in 2008.
“It was a bit of a gamble,” Wyatt says. “Everything we did was being done for the first time. There was a lot of anxiety from everyone, including the people who were building the program, about how it will work and how it will be perceived – will graduates be viewed as unqualified because they didn’t sit for the written bar exam? There was also a lot of national attention as a new model that was replacing the written bar examination, which was relied on to basically screen qualified versus non-qualified people, and this program was going to bypass that.”
Wyatt says the DWS Program was a big factor in his decision to attend UNH Law. “It seemed like a good idea to have some training on practical skills, which was the stated intent of the program, to graduate with the equivalent of essentially two years of practicing law experience.”
“The only thing I tell people who are weighing whether to try it is to be prepared to work hard,” Wyatt says. “You don’t have a lot of freedom to choose the classes, you’re going to get put in the hard classes, and you’re going to have to make the grade to stay in the program. It’s not an easy ride through school, but it seems like you’re kind of ahead of the curve when you graduate. A lot of my friends were off doing fun things and I didn’t get to take advantage of that, but in the end, it paid off. It made me better at this job on the back end.”
In 2015, the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) at the University of Denver independently evaluated the effectiveness of the DWS Program and published its findings in Ahead of the Curve: Turning Law Students into Lawyers: A Study of the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.
According to their report, the IAALS believes that the DWS program “is ahead of the curve in graduating new lawyers ready to venture into the profession – and others can learn from its success.”
Emily Peterson, a 2022 graduate of the program, says it was really helpful to learn by doing, as she is a hands-on learner.
“People sometimes have this attitude that you’re potentially less of a real lawyer if you haven’t taken the bar exam, but I feel like the bar exam is an exercise in memory – you study for it for a certain period of time and then it’s over,” Peterson says. “The DWS program is basically like a two-year-long bar examination. You have someone who’s working with you through the process, who is evaluating not only the work that you’re doing, but your overall performance as a student at the law school and making sure that you are putting forth quality work. I think that ensures a more well-rounded individual upon graduation.”
Peterson continues: “A lot of firms in New Hampshire recruit specifically from the DWS program. Wadleigh, Starr & Peters is one of those. I was a summer associate here in 2021, and received my job offer in August of the same year. So, I had a job waiting for me when I graduated. About 95 percent of the people in my class already had jobs by the time we were graduating.”
In August 2023, Courtney Brooks and NHSC Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald will conduct a panel discussion titled Examining Bar Admissions at the 2023 Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators Annual Meeting in New York City.
“In preparation for this conference, and for our own purposes, we will be gathering data on the number of DWS graduates who sat for another bar examination, along with the pass rates of those graduates,” Brooks says. “We know that from 2008 to 2015, 46 percent took at least one other bar, and 96 percent of those students passed on the first try. We know anecdotally that the DWS program helps recruit students to the law school, and that many out-of-state students stay in New Hampshire after graduating, like Josh Wyatt and Lyndsay Robinson.”
On June 8, Brooks, Coolbroth, and Chief Justice MacDonald met with members of South Dakota’s law school and bar association to discuss the program as they strongly want to implement something similar in their state, since they also have only one law school.
“We exceeded pretty much everybody’s expectations [in the early days]. I was very proud,” Dalianis says. “It’s a functioning program unlike any other. These graduates are essentially two years ahead of their cohorts who didn’t go through such a program. And even better than that, they get to start work the day they graduate. Right after the program started graduating lawyers, the US News standings – which are rather controversial right now but at the time that was how you measured where you wanted to go to law school – jumped 35 points in a single year.”
Garvey echoes the sentiment.
“My personal hope was that it would become a brand – that instead of taking a chance on the Webster Scholars, they would be seeking them out. Now, it’s one of the jewels of the New Hampshire Bar and I’m pleased to have been a part of it,” Garvey says. “There are a lot of success stories [for the DWS program]; just open up the Bar News on any given day and its full of Webster Scholars.”