2009 Archive

Professional Skills Program to Become Larger Part of Curriculum

By Andrew Cohen

Having bolstered its professional skills program in recent years, Berkeley Law has now taken another step by hiring the program’s first full-time leader. The decision to bring aboard David Oppenheimer as Director of Professional Skills signals a growing emphasis on cultivating the practical training needed to perform quality legal work.

Oppenheimer says Berkeley Law has responded quickly to “education studies that show learning by doing is an effective strategy,” and to increased pressure from practitioners to turn out students “who are more reflective about the skill of lawyering.”

The American Bar Association has set standards mandating that law schools offer instruction in skills “generally regarded as necessary for effective and responsible participation in the legal profession.” Courses that focus on these skills—which include negotiation and dispute resolution, pretrial civil and criminal practice, civil and criminal trial advocacy, transactional and business practices, evidence advocacy, specialized intellectual property practice courses, and appellate advocacy—are all offered at Berkeley Law.

Most of these courses, designed to imbue students with the practice skills they’ll use after graduating, incorporate structured role-playing exercises complemented by demonstrations, lectures, and group discussion. Oppenheimer’s charge is to strengthen some of the existing professional skills offerings, and to further integrate the program within the curriculum.

Keeping an Open Mind

“From my 27 years in legal education I know there are different models of skills education or experiential learning that make sense for different subjects and faculty members,” says Oppenheimer, who clerked for California Chief Justice Rose Bird ’65 and was a staff attorney for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing before entering full-time teaching in 1982. “There’s no one approach that works for everyone, but for everyone, there’s some approach that’ll work.”

Oppenheimer is pleased with the faculty’s “openness and enthusiasm” for skills training. He cites his biggest challenge during his first several weeks on the job as “keeping my mouth shut,” and hearing what “our faculty are already doing, and what they want and don’t want, before actively expanding the program.”

Meanwhile, Oppenheimer is expanding his ties to Berkeley. He spent a year at the law school as an exchange student, directed its Employment Discrimination Clinic from 1982–86, and was a visiting professor several times. Beyond those personal connections, one of Oppenheimer’s stepsons is a Berkeley Law 3L while another graduated with a UC Berkeley undergraduate degree and starred on its rugby team.

“My blood runs blue and gold,” says Oppenheimer. “If I’d been asked two years ago to design my dream job, it would’ve been to help revitalize the skills program at Berkeley Law. This is truly the culmination of everything I’ve done in legal education.”