By Andrew Cohen
The legal profession continues to change in ways that demand more and more from today’s law students. Shifting financial models, triggered by the 2008 economic downturn, and the explosion of cross-border transactions have created a legal marketplace that is increasingly competitive and complex. To prepare students for these challenges, Berkeley Law is deepening its experiential education curriculum.
Having greatly expanded its clinical and skills offerings in recent years, the school is crafting a strategic plan for experiential education that will yield new recommendations by the end of the school year. Clinical Professor Ty Alper, Berkeley Law’s director of experiential education, is the point person steering this effort.
In January, Dean Sujit Choudhry formed the Experiential Education Task Force—co-chaired by Alper and Professor Eric Biber—to evaluate the current offerings and identify areas for adjustment and expansion. Alper recently described its initial findings and discussed strategies for providing students with bountiful and effective hands-on learning opportunities.
Q: What are the main goals of the task force?
A: Dean Choudhry strongly believes that Berkeley Law can and should be a leader in offering well-conceived, rigorous, creative experiential offerings that further our educational mission to produce exceptional future lawyers. The task force will engage with students, staff, faculty, alums, and employers over the course of 18 months to develop a vision for the future scope of experiential education at the school.
Q: What does your new role as director of experiential education entail?
A: The dean established the director position to allow Berkeley Law to better coordinate its experiential offerings, and to ensure that the continuity often lacking in academic planning is firmly in place with respect to this critical component of our law school curriculum. In addition to day-to-day oversight of our expansive experiential offerings, I’ll be helping us implement the vision that the task force develops through its work over the course of the next year.
Q: How does Berkeley Law compare with other top law schools regarding the scope and effectiveness of its experiential learning offerings?
A: Berkeley Law is a leader in clinical and skills education. It wasn’t always so, but the clinical program has dramatically expanded over the past two decades. In addition to our three existing in-house clinics, we’re thrilled to launch this year two new in-house clinics, the Environmental Law Clinic and the Policy Advocacy Clinic. Our community-based clinics at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) continue to serve thousands of low-income East Bay residents and give more than 100 students each year the opportunity to represent clients under the supervision of EBCLC staff attorneys. As the gap between the needs of low-income people and their access to the legal system continues to grow, Berkeley Law students are poised to make a difference.
Our skills program is also flourishing, including robust field placement offerings and an unparalleled array of projects that give first-year students more than two dozen opportunities to get their feet wet in legal practice. But as we move forward and expand our offerings, our peers are doing so, as well. So we’re certainly not resting on our laurels.
Q: What are the main gaps the school needs to address?
A: The legal profession is changing. To thrive in today’s legal domain, new lawyers need to enter practice with a broader and nimbler skill set across a wider range of disciplines. At Berkeley Law, we have the ability to partner with the world-class schools on campus, in our very own zip code, and we’re exploring ways to do that.
Q: Can you share some examples?
A: EBCLC’s Youth Defender Clinic has a social worker on staff and enrolls Berkeley social work students to work alongside law students providing young clients with the supports they need to break free of the school-to-prison pipeline. Our new Policy Advocacy Clinic has already successfully teamed law students with public policy students. The Samuelson Law, Technology, & Public Policy Clinic accepts students from across campus, and this semester a team consisting of students from Berkeley Law and the School of Information is working on a project focused on the electronic monitoring of juveniles on probation.
In addition to more interdisciplinary experiential offerings, we need to provide more experiential opportunities for students in transactional law. We have an excellent New Business Practicum as well as EBCLC’s Green-Collar Communities Clinic. We’re also piloting the Berkeley IP Lab this fall, through which students will work with technology startups incubated on campus. But there’s huge student demand in this area, and we need to do more to meet it.
Q: The ABA and the California State Bar are urging law schools to ramp up their experiential offerings. How influential are their recommendations on Berkeley Law’s curriculum?
A: The new ABA and proposed California State Bar requirements reflect increasing calls for law schools to graduate students who are truly ready to enter the profession. The majority of our students already surpass these thresholds, so for us those requirements are in the background. They’ll impact some of the curricular decisions we’ll make, but they likely won’t drive our major decisions. I view them as a reflection of the growing recognition from the bar and the legal academy that law students, like most people, often learn best by doing. We have a responsibility as educators to provide them opportunities to do just that, no matter what area of law they plan to pursue.
Q: How important has the growth of the school’s Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects (SLPS) been in helping students gain early hands-on experience?
A: So important. Our students rave about our SLPS, which allow first-year students to work on behalf of clients in a wide range of areas, from immigration to housing to foster education to veterans’ assistance. Many of our students applied to law school in the first place because they wanted to make a difference in the world. The opportunity for these kinds of experiences right off the bat reminds them of their motivations, exposes them to clients in desperate need of legal representation, and lets them begin to develop some basic lawyering skills.
Q: The number of students taking a clinic for the first time has increased 50 percent over the past decade. How will Berkeley Law accommodate that growing interest?
A: Increased demand for our clinics is a good problem to have, but we do need to address it. Our two new in-house clinics—the first here in over a decade—will satisfy some of this demand. We also have a coordinated Clinical Fellowship Program for the first time this year, and we’ve welcomed six new clinical fellows into this program. Our fellows are young lawyers with a passion for both social justice and the teaching and mentoring of law students. It’s a win-win for us, allowing greater capacity in the clinics and providing a career path for lawyers—many of whom are Berkeley Law graduates—interested in clinical teaching.
Q: Beyond the standard outlets for experiential education, how are some doctrinal courses incorporating it? Is this something more instructors should consider going forward?
A: One thing that’s been really fun for me to learn about is all the experiential teaching currently happening in our doctrinal classes. Some of it is relatively formal, such as a separate lab component of a Criminal Procedure class, in which students write and argue motions based on law they are learning concurrently in class. We also had a Legislation class where students worked in teams to draft medical marijuana initiatives for the Florida ballot, which were then reviewed by a prominent practitioner in the field who also guest-lectured in the class.
Other experiential teaching happens through short in-class exercises, field trips, or other creative ways our faculty bring real-world practice into their classrooms. I have a feeling we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what we can do in this area. We’ve heard from many colleagues that they’re interested in learning how to better incorporate experiential modules into their doctrinal courses.
Q: How can alumni engagement help increase students’ experiential opportunities?
A: Berkeley Law alumni already do so much for our experiential program, whether it’s supervising one of our first-year SLPS, coaching one of our many award-winning competitions teams, or consulting pro bono in clinical cases. But we also need to be constantly learning from our alums—not only through their reflections on their experiences while they were here, but also how they view the current state of the profession and their ideas about how we can better prepare our students for the world they’re about to enter.