Experience Matters


Fordham’s experiential learning program expands with two new leaders and a renewed sense of innovation.

Two years ago, the American Bar Association issued new standards for law schools to fulfill to remain in good standing. Among them was Standard 304, which requires all law students to satisfy an experiential learning requirement. Beginning this fall, the standard applies to all students entering as 1Ls.

For some students—and for some law schools—this new requirement may seem onerous. Not so for Fordham Law students or Fordham Law School. The School’s Clinical Legal Education program has for decades offered students a host of clinics, externships, and simulations. Recently Fordham Law clinic students have scored many victories: a $185,000 settlement for victims of broker fraud, the release of a Guantanamo detainee, and human rights training with LBGTI advocacy groups in sub-Saharan Africa. The program will only expand under the new leadership of professors Leah Hill and Michael W. Martin ’92.

Hill was recently appointed associate dean for experiential education while Martin has assumed the
title director of clinical education. Together they will be responsible for ensuring Fordham students graduate with real lawyering experience.

“In the first year of law school our students learn the habits of thinking that are unique to the legal profession. Our experiential programs provide them with the opportunity to apply those thinking habits to real-world problems,” Hill says. “In our live-client clinics in particular, students are able to put their critical thinking skills to use on behalf of real clients. We are committed to providing students with a range of experiential learning options that allow them to deepen their understanding of what it means to practice law.”

At the Helm

Hill’s deanship is not a new position at Fordham, but Dean Matthew Diller has expanded the scope of the job to ensure the School maintains its edge in experiential education. When Professor Ian Weinstein stepped down from the role last year to rejoin the faculty, Diller split his responsibilities in two. Hill now oversees, nurtures, and promotes every aspect of Fordham Law’s experiential learning, from a clinic’s biggest court victory to a few minutes of lawyer role-playing in a simulation course. Meanwhile, Martin manages the day‐to‐day of the School’s 16 clinics, helping to ensure the students, faculty, and clients they aid get the most from the experience.

In addition to the clinics, simulations and externships provide more lawyering experience. Simulations can take the form of a mock contract negotiation in a corporate law class or role-playing with actors in the Fundamental Lawyering Skills course. Every scenario lets students practice in a controlled environment with immediate feedback from faculty. Externships allow students to learn how lawyers work at firms, companies, nonprofits, and judges’ chambers, not to mention the opportunity for networking.

“In live-client clinics you are exposed to layered problems that require the development of judgment in a real-life moment, which is such a critical skill,” says Martin, who has taught the Federal Litigation clinic since 2004. “In simulations you can add layers and change the variables to pinpoint the skill set you want to develop. Externships are great for focusing on a law field, seeing what it’s like to work day to day in that world, and making contacts on the ground.”

Students have other chances to rub shoulders with top players in law when they take such courses as Fundamental Lawyering Skills, taught by adjunct instructors who are prominent in their fields. “Being in New York means we have a number of extraordinary professionals who teach as adjuncts in our program,” says Hill. “Students get real-time access to their experiences from the field.”

Important as professional contacts are, students also need to meet the people the law is meant to help.

That’s where the clinics come in. Whether focused on clients, legislation, or project work, each clinic gives students direct responsibility for real problems that affect real people.

“The clinics provide the real-life experience where collaboration, judgment, ethical standards, and substantive deep thinking all come into play under the watchful eye of a supervising attorney,” says Martin. “In the classroom, the professor can touch on professionalism issues but not at the same depth as a live-client, real-life situation. We make them far more aware of the professional skill sets and deep thinking they will need to practice the law.”

Practice Meets Podium

For all their value, clinics, externships, and simulations do not represent the totality of experiential learning at Fordham Law. Lecture-oriented classes may incorporate small-scale simulation, a case file to review, or a field visit to a courthouse. The Crowley Program in International Human Rights, for example, sends students on human rights missions to a country that they have spent a semester studying. Stein Scholars often complete an externship with a public interest organization, mentor with Fordham Law alumni, and organize lectures and other events in the public interest field.

“Experiential learning models can be incorporated into almost any course,” says Hill. “In recent years, the line between podium and experiential courses has begun to fade.”

Hill plans to explore how experiential pedagogy can be used throughout the curriculum while enhancing experiential programs already in place. For instance, a version of Fundamental Lawyering Skills might be used to supplement an existing externship course.

Hill also wants to foster greater collaboration with Fordham University, a skill she developed as co-creator of various interdisciplinary courses and programs with faculty from the Graduate School of Social Service and the Department of Psychology. When Hill worked with law and GSS faculty to invite social work students into the clinical program in 1998, Fordham became one of the first schools with a fully integrated interdisciplinary model of practice. In the Family Advocacy Clinic, law students and social work students team up, combining their unique perspectives to help clients, often in special education cases.

“The social work students help the law students understand some of the social services issues that families of children with disabilities might face,” says Hill. “The collaboration between law and social work students provides enhanced advocacy for clients.”

The same law/social work model works for the Criminal Defense clinic, while the Federal Litigation clinic uses both a social work intern and a psychology doctoral student. “Students from different disciplines can resolve a host of legal and nonlegal questions together much more effectively than they could apart,” says Martin.

The other clinics have been just as innovative in their areas of focus. Together, they cover many of the vital spaces where people need the law the most. Martin’s job will be to maintain that level of service. Though each clinic does a great job giving students a “rich, deep sense of what it means to be working in the service of others,” he also knows that students work best when they are excited by the subject matter. He will assess how well the clinics cover their fields and whether they need some tweaking. He is also open to expanding or even starting clinics to address legal areas that have grown in importance lately, such as those that touch on technology and entrepreneurship.

“We have to stay dynamic,” says Martin, who took some of the earliest clinics as a Fordham student in the early 1990s. “We have to keep in mind the legal market and hold students’ interest by presenting them with relevant options.”

Popular for a Reason

The need to keep the clinics engaging reflects the greater challenge of experiential learning: Merely having hands-on options isn’t enough anymore. As many as 80 percent of Fordham students take Fundamental Lawyering Skills, and 60 percent participate in clinics. With so much student interest, the programs have evolved over the years, and students expect the same level of quality from them as they would any basic class. The deeper focus Hill and Martin can provide in their new roles helps ensure Fordham stays at the forefront of legal education.

“We have one of the largest live-client clinical programs in the nation, and we are in the middle of New York City. Our students can take great externships and learn from remarkable adjunct faculty in their own backyard, and so many of our classes have some kind of experiential component,” says Hill. “Fordham’s experiential program is one of the strongest in the country. It’s a reason students choose to come to the School.”


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