Bar News - February 18, 2015
Ahead of the Curve: New Report Calls UNH Law Program a National Model
By: Kristen Senz
The Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program at the UNH School of Law is an innovative legal education model that other law schools around the country should consider, according to a new study by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS).
The study found that students who participate in the two-year program, successful completion of which results in NH bar admission, perform better in standardized client interviews than non-DWS attorneys admitted to practice within the past two years, even when LSAT scores and class rank for all study participants are taken into account.
“The combination of formative and reflective assessment administered in a practice-based context appears to produce better outcomes for students, which ultimately translates to better prepared lawyers,” wrote Alli Gerkman and Elena Harman, authors of the IAALS report, “Ahead of the Curve: Turning Law Students into Lawyers.”
A collaboration of the law school, the NH Supreme Court, and the NH Board of Bar Examiners, the DWS program effectively leverages New Hampshire’s small bar and its commitment to the program’s success, as well as the credibility of the program’s well-respected director, John Garvey, the study notes. And although these factors may make the program difficult to fully replicate elsewhere, the authors encourage other law schools and jurisdictions to consider adopting some of its key elements – namely, its focus on feedback, self-assessment, and simulations that give students a place to safely hone their skills and make mistakes.
The feedback in New Hampshire about the program and its graduates, many of whom have remained in the state to practice law, has been uniformly positive, according to Garvey and NH Supreme Court Chief Justice Dalianis, who came up with the idea for the DWS program more than 20 years ago and has helped push for and refine it ever since.
“We get people all the time who contact me and say they want a Webster scholar,” Garvey said during a recent interview in his office at the law school, “and that’s because either they’ve already had a Webster scholar or they’ve talked to someone who has hired a Webster scholar, and they’ve heard that they are ahead of the curve.”
“The vast majority of law firms are looking for people who can be productive from the very beginning, so programs that teach people how to be client-ready provide to the employer somebody who has a lot of the training that the employer can no longer afford to provide.”
Garvey has heard the argument that law school isn’t meant to be a trade school, but he’s not buying it. “It’s not a trade school per se,” he says, “but it is a place where you are training people to work with clients. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and it’s not just in your head… I think preparing them to be client-ready should be what law school is about, and I’m not embarrassed to say that. It’s the balance and the combination (of academics and practical skills) that leads to success, not just one or the other.”
A primary focus of the DWS program is self-assessment, and that’s a big part of what makes it so successful, according to the IAALS report.
“Most people don’t like the sound of their own voice,” says Garvey, an experienced lawyer and mediator, “but we make them listen and watch themselves and reflect on what they’re doing and what they can do better. This creates a lifelong habit and a learning cycle that enables them to continue to improve.”
Garvey also dismisses the hype around creating “practice-ready” lawyers, preferring instead the goal of helping his students become “client-ready.” By putting the focus on the client, the program amplifies the importance of knowing about people in order to be a good lawyer.
“They learn about themselves – what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons,” he says. “It’s not just knowing the law; it’s knowing yourself, knowing your client… It’s what people like to call soft skills, but they’re really not. It’s often what makes the difference between success and failure. It’s not just the skills; it’s also that aspect of self-awareness and the interpersonal dynamics.”
Anthony Muir, a Daniel Webster Scholar and third-year law student from Danville, NH, was admitted to other law schools across the country, including Wake Forest (ranked 31 in 2014 by US News and World Report, compared with UNH Law’s rank of 93), but says the DWS program was “the number one reason why I decided to go here and why I decided to stay in New Hampshire.”
Selection of the 24 students admitted to the program each year is based on a broad set of criteria but includes a baseline GPA requirement of at least 3.0 for completion. Focus groups who participated in the IAALS study wondered whether the DWS students performed better in the client interviews because they represent the brightest students at the law school.
To test this theory, the researchers looked at 192 standardized client interviews, 69 by DWS students and 123 by non-DWS lawyers representing a range of LSAT scores and law school class ranks (conducted at the NH Bar Association Practical Skills CLE). The DWS students significantly outperformed the lawyers. “The only significant predictor of standardized client interview performance was whether or not the interviewer participated in the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program,” the report states.
It makes sense, says Garvey, that a law school steeped in innovation and the development of practical skills from its inception would become a loud voice in the national conversation about changes in the legal market and legal education.
The roots of the DWS program stretch back to the early 1990s, when Dalianis, then a trial court judge in Nashua, perceived a decrease in the quality of representation by the lawyers who were practicing before her. Gone were the days when new associates “carried the bags” of experienced attorneys while receiving on-the-job training; about half of the people who passed the bar in New Hampshire were starting their own practices, says Dalianis.
“There’s so much to know and so many traps that people can fall into that I began to try to think about a different way to do it,” she recalls.
Dalianis had read the 1992 report by the American Bar Association’s MacCrate Task Force on “Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap” and wanted to find a better way to teach the fundamental skills and values the report identified.
So, Dalianis convened a tri-state coalition of legal community leaders. The regional plan the group developed ultimately proved too ambitious, “but I didn’t give up, and by then I was on the Supreme Court,” she said. “From the inside, you have a little more influence.”
With the help of retired justice and former professor James Duggan, Dalianis conceived a program that would culminate with bar passage as a way to incentivize a more practical, hands-on approach to learning how to practice law. The Supreme Court today continues to oversee the DWS program, and members of the NH Board of Bar Examiners play a key role in the feedback loop for students.
“I think it reflects well on us for being able to accomplish something like this,” says Dalianis. “It’s a model that other states and law schools around the country could replicate if they wanted to.”
Hired in 2005 to translate the concept into practice, Garvey reverse-engineered the DWS curriculum to align with the skills and values delineated in the MacCrate report. Two years after the launch of the program, it was lauded in the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law. Then a few years ago, Sheehan Phinney lawyer Robert Miller updated his book, Law School Confidential, and included a chapter on the DWS program, further raising its profile beyond the Granite State.
Garvey says it’s gratifying to see the program receive the recognition of IAALS and that the success is owed to the collaboration of the bench, bar and law school. “The way we got this program started is by asking lots of people if they would help, and a lot of them have said, ‘sure.’ People have been willing to participate because they agree on the goal of the program.”
The study of the DWS program was part of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, a multiyear initiative by the Denver-based IAALS to empirically study innovative approaches to legal education.
“I think this is a wonderful opportunity for law schools and bars to think about how they’re training people,” says Garvey, “to look at this program and to see what real change would look like and to try things, because you can’t just go along like people have done for so many years, because it’s not coming back to the way it was. Things have changed.”
Read the full report.