Law school course gives students a dose of `Reality 101'

They file complaints. They take depositions. They interview "clients" and advise them on the legal merits of their cases. They argue motions in front of seasoned attorneys and jurists, including members of the Georgia Supreme Court. And they haven't even graduated from law school.

This fall 36 Emory law students are taking a course innocuously labeled "Pre-trial Litigation." It really should be called "Reality 101." Students get the chance to take what they've learned in the classroom and apply it as they would in everyday practice. They're not actually practicing law, but Professor Morgan Cloud makes sure they come as close to the real thing as possible.

In many ways, the course is better at simulating reality than other types of legal skills courses, says Cloud, who has been teaching pre-trial litigation most of the 15 years the law school has offered it. "None of the other courses, even the clinical experiences, forces students to have the full range of experiences that a lawyer has in everyday practice," said Cloud. Even when students work in a law office, legal clinic or court environment, they often only get a truncated experience, since "most major disputes don't get resolved within a semester," he added.

Key to the course's success is the participation of 10 adjunct faculty, each of whom Cloud recruited to teach the semester-long program with him. The faculty roster, which reads like a who's who in state legal circles, includes: Georgia Supreme Court Justices Carol W. Hunstein and Leah Sears; Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Frank Eldridge; Fulton County State Court Judge Gino Brogdon; Chief Circuit Mediator for the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Stephen Kinnard; Fulton County Attorney Susan Forsling; and attorneys Jane Fahey of Bondurant, Mixon & Elmore; Michael Fisher of Life Insurance Company of Georgia; Sandy Owens of Nall, Miller, Owens, Holcutt & Howard; and Theresa Roseborough of Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan.

Each faculty member works all semester with a two-student legal team. The faculty member functions as a senior partner in a three-person firm, the students as junior partners. "You guide them, help them keep their focus and direct their activity without managing it," said attorney Roseborough, who is participating for the first time. Faculty also act as judges for student lawyers as they perform various pre-trial functions; faculty judges hear motions, observe client interviews and witness depositions. Then they take on a third role as professor/teacher, critiquing student performance at every stage.

"This is one of the few courses that gives students the opportunity to work with justices, judges and attorneys on a one-on-one basis," said Forsling. "They get to do some things that a lot of lawyers don't do until they're at least a year into practice."

Unlike traditional courses, students don't get the law or the facts presented to them in a canned format. "There is no textbook or casebook for the course," said Cloud. "Their text is the law library."

Similarly, students conduct formal and informal discovery to develop the facts of the case. For example, they take depositions and conduct interviews of first- and second-year students who are hired and trained to play the roles of clients and witnesses. "They have to discover the facts the same way a real lawyer does," said Cloud.

Starting from ground zero may seem daunting, but Stephen Kinnard of the 11th Circuit's mediation program points out that "students need to understand that lawsuits are fact driven. This course gives them the opportunity to see how important the facts of a case really are. They learn how to obtain admissible evidence and get from the fact stage to the trial stage."

And unlike trial courses, in which the lawyer's actions are presided over by a judge, "pre-trial litigation involves unregulated lawyer-to-lawyer activity," said Cloud. As Roseborough explained it, "the pre-litigation tasks are the most time-consuming, the most demanding, and they involve the most decisions about how to conduct yourself vis-a-vis a particular case."

Students must decide whether a client's situation is a civil, criminal, state or federal matter, or whether there are options for solving a client's problem other than a trial. The course has added a session this year on the role of mediation, which Kinnard says is increasingly becoming the vehicle of choice for settling legal disputes. "We're trying to teach students that situations don't start as lawsuits; they start as problems," he said. "That's why mediation is now incorporated into the pre-trial process."

Perhaps the biggest advantage of this type of supervised plunge into practice is that for the first time, students can see the big picture. "This is one of the most practical courses students can take on lawyering," said Justice Hunstein. "It teaches them how to bring it all together: courtroom demeanor, advocacy, as well as substantive law."

Third-year student James Savin, who took the course last year, agrees. "The course really pulls together all the different things you learned in other courses in a way you can't get in the traditional law school class. Most courses teach you the content of the law; this course teaches you how to practice the law and how to apply it as a lawyer." The course also teaches students how to think like a lawyer, said Fisher. "Until you have to sit with someone accused of a crime and think about how to help them, you can't really know what it's like."

When students begin to break out of their classroom routines, the excitement is palpable. "It's akin to introducing the cadaver in medical school. It's as real as you can get," said Fisher, a seasoned Emory adjunct faculty member and long-time instructor with the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. "And the students come so far so fast. With young associates in a firm, professional development can be a slow, agonizing process. In this course, they go from staring at me to thinking strategically about how to interview a witness. It's great to see how well they get into the role; they talk like they're representing a real client."

Cloud estimates that students get the equivalent of as much as two year's practical experience compressed into a semester. That's why the course is being emulated at other law schools around the country. "Emory is really a groundbreaker in this area," he said.

Fisher says that the intense preparation and practical preparation have become major reasons why both students and employers are attracted to Emory law school. "As an employer, one critical factor in hiring is how quickly you can take a young associate and have them do the firm's work," said Fisher. "The more opportunities like this that students have, the faster they can make contributions to a firm."

--Elaine Justice

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