Creating a Cohort

On May 16, the day before they crossed the podium in cap and gown, 13 law students were sworn in as members of the New Hampshire Bar. None of them had taken the traditional bar exam. All of them had participated in an intensive two-year bar preparation course as part of their enrollment in the Daniel Webster Scholar program.   In the NH Supreme Court’s special session that day,  Justice Linda Dalianis, the leader in creating the program, celebrated this first class’s fulfillment of her vision: making better lawyers.

Students in the Daniel Webster Scholar program actually do many of the things that students do in other law schools. They do pro bono service. They work in a clinic or externship. They participate in a range of practice-based simulation courses. They negotiate, learn about managing a law practice, write motions, briefs, opening statements and contracts.

And some of the things this class did may add a twist to legal education. Students prepared portfolios of their work which were evaluated by members of the board of bar examiners when students were 2Ls and again when they were 3Ls.  Students had one-on-one meetings with a bar examiner where they were asked a range of questions (think of a PhD candidate defending a dissertation) showing that they were practice-ready. They were expected to integrate, self-assess, and learn from their experiences over 4 semesters.

One of the things that happened was that this first group of Webster scholars created a cohort. For two years they spent a lot of time – inside and out of classes – with 12 other people.  This was a diverse group, classmates who would not have necessarily chosen to spend time with each other. They had to learn to work with each other – over and over and over again.  They saw each other’s faults and strengths.  They saw each other grow.  Some students have those sustained two-year experiences with classmates in clinical programs, with extracurricular groups or on law journals, but as the Carnegie report noted, few have that kind of sustained and integrated legal apprenticeship.

As a member of the Daniel Webster Scholar selection committee, I recently helped select the third class, who will be graduated and be sworn into the NH Bar in May 2010.  We’ve all learned from the last two classes. As the Director of the program, John Garvey, pointed out, the students who excel in this intensive two year program are ones with a healthy attitude and work-ethic, not necessarily the ones at the top of the class. Students who excel are the ones willing to listen.  Who care about and understand how to interact with other humans. Who take responsibility for their own learning. Who can admit they are wrong and say they are sorry. When asked what attributes she found most effective, one student said, “It’s the ones who are willing to consider someone else’s views.” How much do we teach and assess that in law school?

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