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3YP: Strengthening DePaul's commitment to experiential learning

The College of Law is enriching its JD curriculum with the Third Year in Practice Program. Known as 3YP, the program gives students an opportunity to complete general law school course requirements in two years and spend their third year immersed in the practice of law.

Launching in fall 2014, 3YP will combine clinical, simulation and professional skills courses with an intensive externship program. Participating students will spend a significant part of their third year working in select government agencies, nonprofit organizations, law firms or judicial chambers under the close supervision of a practicing attorney or judge.

The 3YP option enhances DePaul’s experiential learning curriculum by allowing for more out-of classroom credits and a more intensive field placement experience, with an ultimate goal of better preparing students for the realities of the profession.

A call for change

The program responds to the changing demands of the legal field and reflects recent practices by law schools and attorneys aiming to reinvigorate instruction and the profession.

In 2013, the American Bar Association (ABA) Task Force on the Future of Legal Education conducted a review of legal education. Its report—for consideration by institutions, the legal world and the public—called for sweeping changes. Among them, the panel requested increased innovation in law schools and a greater shift from doctrinal instruction toward development of the day-to-day skills and competencies required by lawyers.

“Legal education embraces new forms of pedagogy, but not always along the same timeline as other areas of study,” said Associate Professor Allison Tirres, co-creator of the 3YP program. “Law schools and law professors have for a long time done things that are innovative, including using the Socratic method of question and answer in the classroom— rather than mere lecture—and providing clinical opportunities. I think many law schools are just now moving forward with further pedagogical innovation.”

At a retreat in October 2013, DePaul College of Law faculty members discussed the structure of the law school’s curriculum. The dialogue, Tirres said, was “informed by a growing recognition that experiential learning is an important and valuable part of legal education.”

The 3YP concept originated with Associate Professor Zoë Robinson, who conceived of it as part of a three-track program at DePaul, allowing students to pursue a traditional JD, a joint JD/LLM or a third year in practice. Faculty members acknowledged its benefit for a certain subset of students, as well as for the university in deepening ties with legal practitioners and nonprofits in Chicago.

Tirres took on the responsibility to build the program and enlisted the help of senior faculty member Professor Leonard Cavise, director of the Center for Public Interest Law and Chiapas Human Rights Practicum, to craft the basics and guide it through the faculty approval process. They also convened an informal working group to further hone the proposal.

Clinical Instructor David Rodriguez soon emerged as program director. His experience in nonprofit and for-profit sectors, and enthusiasm for legal education and innovation stood out to Tirres and the 3YP program committee, comprised of faculty, staff and alumni.

Rodriguez took the committee’s momentum even further, researching pedagogical theory and consulting contacts at other law schools and legal clinics. He also reached out to local practitioners to discuss the most promising externships for 3YP students.

The end product allows students to apply following their first year and, if accepted, combine the classroom work for the second and third years. The third year will be open for externships, clinics and professional skills courses.

To create even more time for experiential learning, DePaul is increasing the allotted out-of-classroom credits from 12 to 21, still within ABA regulations. The combination of clinics and externships will give students an unprecedented opportunity to work directly with actual clients and one-on-one faculty mentors.

Clinics and professional skills courses will expose students to litigation and transactional work, focusing on legal drafting, negotiation and client counseling. In addition, the program will include a capstone seminar designed to help students retain the skills learned in 3YP. Rodriguez says that the range of approaches will create a powerful dynamic for program graduates.

Addressing new needs

Advocates of 3YP also see the full-immersion approach as a step toward addressing the national imbalance between market underemployment and unfulfilled legal needs.

“The legal profession needs to serve more people in more places, not just those in big cities and not just those with high incomes,” explained Tirres. “This is increasingly true in recent years, since the big firm model of legal service delivery has pulled most lawyers out of rural areas and out of the price range of most clients. We should be preparing our students to be able to open their own practice and to take that practice wherever there is a need.”

In addition to the market shifts, Rodriguez points out that law students are changing. Institutions are responsible for addressing the developments in communication, professional dynamics and even cognitive processing on account of technological innovations, he says.

Some colleges are adjusting to the change by looking to existing or emerging models. Harvard Business School’s spherical “hive” classrooms help students close the gap between school and career by replicating the crowdsourcing approach of corporate learning circles and allowing students to educate themselves using laptop computers.

Law schools are taking a more conservative approach, looking to models used in professions like teaching and medicine, which require extensive on-the-ground training.

“Medical schools utilize the residency as a way to train students,” said Tirres. “The government funds different programs to ensure that doctors go to areas where there is a high need. We don't have this training structure in law. But we can expand our curriculum to provide intensive fieldwork for students. 3YP is one way to build on our current offerings and provide that kind of training for fledgling lawyers, while also serving the needs of clients in the greater Chicago area.”

The effort to produce great lawyers—and a greater number of practicing lawyers—is gaining momentum beyond the institutional realm. As an article in the March issue of National Jurist pointed out, California’s state bar task force has proposed a competency training requirement en route to law licensure.

Continuing an experiential approach The 3YP opportunity is merely the latest chapter in DePaul’s commitment to skills-based training—an extension of the educational philosophy the school has maintained for decades. The Field Placement Program, established in 1974, still thrives today, offering nearly 200 externship placements with private firms, corporations, and public interest and government agencies.

Experiential education is not new at DePaul,” explained Professor Barbara Bressler, newly named associate dean of experiential education, who has served in leadership roles with the Field Placement Program, the Center for Intellectual Property Law & Information Technology, and founded the Technology/Intellectual Property Clinic. In her role as associate dean, Bressler will carefully manage the College of Law’s experiential learning efforts.

“DePaul has consistently expanded experiential opportunities for students over the years. It is because we already have excellent skills, practicum, clinical and field placement offerings, that we can offer the 3YP experience to our students.

“I know that with the support of the university and our wonderful alumni and with the participation and assistance of our dedicated and enthusiastic faculty, the law school will be able to offer innovative experiential programs that will be well received by our students and the practicing bar.”

By all accounts, 3YP is designed to accommodate diverse career paths by providing students with comprehensive, legal training in an organized fashion.

“We’ve had a number of students who, because of the confidence they gained participating in our experiential learning programs, were able to establish their own practices, or immediately contribute to a small or midsize firm,” Bressler added. “The number of our graduates who work in solo, small or midsize practices is likely to increase given the need for lower-cost legal services and the changes in the way that larger firms are operating.”

Recent alumna Renee Gross (JD ’13) says she benefited from the College of Law's experiential approach. At DePaul, she participated in the misdemeanor and poverty law clinics, both of which exposed her to the process of preparing a case, interacting with clients and appearing in court. She also interned with the housing practice group at the Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF).

“At LAF, I researched cases, interviewed clients, and drafted motions and legal memos on different housing law topics,” Gross said. “All of these experiences helped build my confidence and developed my understanding of the legal system. They provided greater insight into the health struggles of some of our society’s most vulnerable populations.”

As coordinator of legal initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, Gross now provides analyses and support for national, state and local public health policy options concerning food marketing. She notes that many of her peers are interested in pursuing careers where they can apply their degrees in a nontraditional manner and says 3YP makes sense for law students in today’s legal environment.

“Every specialization within the legal field requires ample experience,” she said. “The classroom component is essential, but it’s important to balance this traditional aspect of law school with time spent learning from seasoned attorneys and working on solving real legal problems.”

DePaul’s greater mission

Strengthening student career preparation and supporting creativity in teaching are fundamental to the experiential education program at DePaul. The program places faculty in closer contact with students, which Rodriguez hopes will encourage creativity in instruction.

He believes the program could soften transitions not only for students entering the legal market, but for the College of Law and its professors as the larger academic community incorporates new approaches to teaching law.

“[Professors] are able to give virtually instantaneous feedback to the student, but they are also forced to continually assess the efficacy of their own teaching models,” he said.

As an instructor in DePaul’s Poverty Law Clinic, Rodriguez said he makes a conscious effort to impart the fundamentals of good counseling. “In our clinics, we teach students not only how to represent real clients in real cases,” he said, “but also important intangibles, like the unique struggles of clients, and the common humanity with those who come from many different walks of life. In this way, a good teacher is also a good Vincentian teacher."

Rodriguez points out that the 3YP program aligns with DePaul University’s Vision 2018 strategic plan. The first objective calls for curricular innovation and program development to adequately prepare students. While this may seem like a traditional goal, the plan acknowledges a broader institutional commitment to student outcomes.

“Ultimately,” Rodriguez suggested, “we always need to be mindful of our approach so that we can help our students become more mindful of their own.”