Developing the Whole Professional

The Bencher—May/June 2018

By Judge Cheryl R. Zwart and Dean Richard E. Moberly

Traditionally, law schools have defined their role as teaching students to “think like a lawyer.” Training on how to actually “be a lawyer” has been left to postgraduate employers, mentors within the profession, and the trial and error of on-the-job experience. But with the ever-increasing demand to bill hours, and clients focused on assiduously scrutinizing and discounting bills, practicing attorneys struggle to find the hours and energy needed to train and mentor young attorneys.

Law schools have responded. They have expanded clinical programs and embraced experiential learning through simulations, externships and live-client experiences. Programs taught by adjunct faculty have been incorporated into curricula, with practicing lawyers providing hands-on instruction to complement and enhance the work of the law school faculty.

By all accounts, these efforts have been an unmitigated success at the University of Nebraska (UNL) College of Law. Located in Lincoln, Nebraska, the UNL law school receives robust support from the local bar: Over 75 percent of all adjunct instructors are current or past members of the Robert Van Pelt American Inn of Court. In addition, countless hours are donated by Inn members to assist with the hands-on experiences offered at the law school.

The UNL law school is now implementing the next phase of legal education: developing the whole professional by intentionally and concretely focusing on the broad range of skills needed in the legal profession. UNL has developed the innovative and nationally recognized Build Your Character (BYC) program. The BYC program emphasizes that being a lawyer and a leader requires more than learning to think like a lawyer and that the entire curricular and extracurricular offerings of the school should be devoted to developing professional skills.

The BYC program acknowledges that a lawyer’s duties go far beyond being able to analyze a problem and reason a way to a conclusion. Being a lawyer requires thinking through an immense workload and planning a strategic and efficient method of dealing with it. It means approaching a negotiation far more interested in listening and questioning than in arguing. The BYC program promotes the notion that the best lawyers have a broad range of other professional skills at which they excel. They are able to listen, negotiate, influence, build a list of clients, develop excellent relationships within their field, and successfully manage a heavy workload, just to name a few.

Nebraska’s BYC program focuses on 27 different skills that lawyers need, borrowing many of them from the results of a groundbreaking study by law professors at the University of California, Berkeley. That study identified dozens of skills lawyers need to be effective, dividing the skills into eight core traits: intellectual and cognitive; research and information gathering; communications; planning and organizing; conflict resolution; client and business relations; working with others; and identity.

The law school devotes resources toward teaching these skills in a variety of courses, clinics, externships, and extracurricular offerings. UNL has “tagged” these skills and integrated them into all aspects of the law school curriculum, with students tracking their progress on a smartphone app. While the traditional classroom teaching remains focused on legal analysis and reasoning, problem-solving, and researching, clinics and simulations give students experience in developing practical judgment, influencing and advocating, and negotiation skills. Layered on top of this core educational experience are workshops, speakers, student competitions, and externships where other, “softer” skills are gained, such as cultural competency, networking, community involvement, passion, and engagement. The program also encourages students to take care of themselves with opportunities to talk about stress management and to develop productive ways to reduce stress.

This holistic view creates a culture that embraces learning beyond the classroom. And employers value these skills. As one lawyer said, “We may hire on grades, but these are the skills that people need to make partner.”

The Robert Van Pelt Inn and the UNL College of Law have a shared set of values and will remain close partners and allies to improve the legal profession. Law school students and faculty are active Inn members and contributors, while Inn members are active and engaged in the educational goals of the law school. Through Inn meetings, students learn oral communication skills, meet regularly with members of the practicing bar, and are mentored to not only understand and apply the law, but to improve their business development skills, and create and foster a network of trusted colleagues. And many of those Inn colleagues are, in turn, actively involved as instructors and volunteers at the law school.

For some Inn members, introspection is a key step to improving professionalism within the practicing bar. When faced with new challenges, they ask, “What lessons should I be learning from my experience, how can those lessons help me become a better lawyer, and how does my work contribute to the community?” They integrate these answers into their classroom teaching and feedback, encouraging students to ask themselves those same questions. Other Inn members hope to teach students to become lawyers who care about the principles learned through the American Inns of Court: to avoid unnecessary acrimony and strive for civility and the perfection of justice. Still others teach so they can interact with students who are enthusiastic and curious about the law and who see it from a different, and often more neutral, perspective.

From the students’ perspective, the involvement of law school adjunct professors and Inn volunteers creates the perfect recipe for mentorship. Students and young lawyers are able to substantively interact in small-group settings with experienced practitioners who genuinely care about the profession. And those mentorship relationships naturally continue into the classroom and even into practice. A student who remained an Inn member after graduating said, “Inns of Court, as a student, provided the foundation to both my legal position and my current adjunct professor position. Inns of Court helped me develop strong communication skills, networking skills, and teaching skills, which I hope I am passing on to the next generations of potential attorneys.”

The synergy between the UNL College of Law and the Robert Van Pelt Inn continues to grow. In March 2018, the law school and Inn planned to collaborate to introduce undergraduate students to the profession as part of the law school’s Rural Law Opportunities Program (RLOP). This program aims to ensure all Nebraskans have access to legal representation by encouraging the practice of law in the state’s rural communities.

The need for attorneys in rural Nebraska is greater than ever: Eleven of the state’s 93 counties have no lawyers. This shortage means that people may have to drive hundreds of miles for legal assistance. Communities not only lack lawyers and judges, but also important leaders for schools, community organizations and businesses.

The UNL law school is committed to solving that problem. And the Robert Van Pelt Inn will help by introducing RLOP participants to law students and faculty, practitioners of all levels of experience and areas of practice, and judges from both the state and federal courts.

The mission of American Inns of Court is “to advance the rule of law by achieving the highest level of professionalism through example, education and mentoring.” In the heartland, the Robert Van Pelt Inn works to fulfill that mission by supporting the UNL College of Law’s innovative drive to develop the whole professional.

Judge Cheryl R. Zwart is a federal magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska. Richard Moberly is the Dean and Richard & Catherine Schmoker Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, where he has taught since 2004. Both authors are members of the Robert Van Pelt AIC in Lincoln, Nebraska.

© 2018 Hon. Cheryl R. Zwart and Richard Moberly, Esq. This article was originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.