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New Hampshire Allows Law Students to Demonstrate Court Skills in Lieu of Bar Exam

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Imagine basing certification on a combination of classroom performance and real world experience instead of relying on the results of one exam.

By Katherine Mangan

When New Hampshire's 13 newest lawyers were sworn in to the state bar last month, the ceremony took place a day before they actually graduated from law school.

This speedy swearing-in as officers of the court was part of an unorthodox program at the state's only law school, Franklin Pierce Law Center. And while their classmates and thousands of other law-school graduates nationwide will spend two or three days next month sweating over state bar exams, the first class of Daniel Webster Honor Scholars spent the past two years honing their courtroom skills and demonstrating them to judges and lawyers.

The alternate certification program that allowed them to bypass the usual bar exam was initiated by a New Hampshire Supreme Court justice who felt there must be a better way to prepare students to practice law.

"I was a trial judge for 20 years, and every day in the trial courts, I saw new people who didn't have a clue," said Linda S. Dalianis, a senior associate justice, who gave the keynote address at the students' graduation.

She and her fellow Supreme Court justices teamed up with New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners, the state's Bar Association, and the Concord law school to create a training and certification program that would require students to prove that they know how to prepare and try a case, examine a witness, negotiate a settlement, and reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as future lawyers.
Practice Makes More Perfect

New Hampshire's Daniel Webster program responds to concerns that have been raised in recent reports that fault law schools for not providing enough practical training (The Chronicle, January 19, 2007).

Participating scholars are selected at the beginning of their second year of law school and have a series of specialized courses and activities on top of the core classes required of all students. During the first semester of the program, the students are divided into two "firms," each of which has a professor acting as a senior partner. They litigate a case that had been tried in real life, taking depositions and arguing in front of real judges. The second semester, they take the case to a mock trial.

At the end of each semester, one of three bar examiners participating in the program reviews each student's portfolio, which includes court briefings, videos of courtroom appearances, and reflective essays, and then meets with the student to discuss his or her progress.

The following year, students receive additional feedback from the six teaching assistants who have posed as their clients. They might, for instance, tell a student he used too much legal jargon or talked over the client's head.

Students also write essays and keep journals in which they reflect upon what they like and don't like about the program and how they are going to work on problem areas.

Real-life judges, lawyers, and stenographers either donate their time or receive token payments to participate. John Burwell Garvey, a professor of law at Franklin Pierce who directs the program, says that after 25 years of working as a lawyer in New Hampshire, he had plenty of people to turn to in the legal profession. "An awful lot of people have felt this was a great way to prepare law students and have put their time where their mouth is," he says.

"In a typical class, you listen to a lecture, take a blue-book exam, get your grade, pull the plug, it goes down the drain, and you move on to your next course," says Mr. Garvey. "Here, those skills are woven together and integrated from one course to the next. We're weaving and creating building blocks at the same time."
No Easy Ride

Judge Dalianis says the program's graduates have proved they are ready to practice. "I believe they are at least a few steps ahead of graduates who haven't gone through the program," she says. In addition to practicing practical skills, she says, "they will have already reflected on their strengths and weaknesses, which is not something that ordinary law school demands of students."

Some might assume that the students are getting off easy because they don't have to take the traditional bar exam.

"One of the conceptual difficulties we had to overcome was the view that we were dumbing down the process," she says. In fact, "these students have been more rigorously examined over two years than anyone would in two days of taking the bar exam."

Another 15 honors students are enrolled in the program and will graduate next year, with another 15 to be selected the following year.

Jennifer Gibson, a former high-school English teacher who graduated this month, was attracted by the program's hands-on experience.

As in teaching, "I knew that the first year is the hardest, and that until you actually do it, it's difficult to get your feet on the ground," she says. In August, she will begin working as a clerk in the New Hampshire Superior Court.

On a sunny Friday this month, she and the 12 other participants stood in the New Hampshire Supreme Court chambers where they had begun the program two years before. After congratulatory speeches from the court's chief justice and the president of the New Hampshire Bar, the students were sworn in as lawyers. The next day they graduated with the rest of their class.

"We were in the same room with the same judges speaking to us. It was amazing how much we had learned in those two years," Ms. Gibson says. "It brought the whole experience full circle."

— Katherine Mangan
Chronicle of Higher Education


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