By Andrew Cohen
When Acting Dean Gillian Lester told her that she had won this year’s Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction, lecturer-in-residence Patricia Plunkett Hurley felt “stunned and overwhelmed. It took a minute for it to sink in.”
A leading instructor in the law school’s First-Year Skills Program, Hurley had good reason to be surprised—all 18 previous Rutter Award winners were tenured professors. “It’s quite humbling to see the list of past recipients,” she said. “To be in such an illustrious group with professors like Herma Hill Kay and Eleanor Swift is quite an honor.”
Hurley, who believes that the choice reflects Berkeley Law’s increasing commitment to a robust professional skills curriculum, is “delighted to have this chance to shine a light on our thriving program.”
Established in 1995 by the late William Rutter—a philanthropist, lawyer, educator, and author—the annual award recognizes an educator who has shown an outstanding commitment to teaching and who is an inspiration to students.
“Patricia is always full of great suggestions for how best to teach a particular topic or idea,” said Lindsay Sturges Saffouri, director of the First-Year Skills Program. “Her innovative thinking informs the rest of our teaching, which in turn benefits not just her students, but the entire first-year class.”
Hurley was one of the first instructors hired in 1999 by Donna Petrine, the program’s former director, and Swift. She spent the previous five years as a staff attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, writing memorandum dispositions, handling emergency motions, and presenting cases to three-judge panels in criminal and civil appeals. While working at the court, she began teaching legal research and writing as an adjunct at Hastings College of the Law.
During that time, I read a lot of briefs,” said Hurley, who gives presentations at regional and national legal writing conferences. “Some briefs were excellent, but I was surprised by how much poor legal writing found its way to the court. That sparked my interest in training law students to build a strong foundation in the critical area of legal writing.”
Laying the groundwork
As part of the Professional Skills Program, all first-year Berkeley Law students take Legal Research and Writing. The course teaches students how to find and read cases and statutes, analyze a hypothetical client’s legal problem, and predict how a court would rule based on that analysis. Students write several drafts of increasingly complex legal memoranda—and receive extensive written feedback—in small sections taught by Hurley and six other lecturers-in-residence who have many years of experience practicing and teaching law.
Led by Saffouri, the first-year skills faculty includes Lucinda Sikes, Erin Clarke, Cheryl Berg ’93, Sarah Laubach ’05, Michelle Cole, and Wendy Lilliedoll ’04. Hurley describes this “wonderful” group of colleagues as “incredibly collaborative and dedicated educators who make me a better teacher.”
During the spring semester, first-year law students take Written and Oral Advocacy, where they shift from objective to persuasive legal writing and work on multiple drafts of a dispositive trial-court motion. The issue is most often drawn from a real case and culminates with oral arguments.
“Legal employers increasingly need lawyers who are well-prepared from day one,” Hurley said. “When our students tell us that they had a terrific experience in their first summer internship or in their first job out of law school, and that the First-Year Skills Program put them in the position to succeed, that’s tremendously gratifying.”
Hurley will receive the Rutter Award during a ceremony and reception at Berkeley Law on April 16, at 4 pm, in the Warren Room.
“I feel lucky to have a job that really fits my skill set and that enables me to help law students develop professional competence and confidence,” she says. “We start off with students who might not know what a civil suit is on their first day of law school. By the end of the spring semester, they’re submitting persuasive and polished briefs, and arguing eloquently before a judge. It’s very rewarding.”