The Applied Academic: Capstone Classes and Student Rule Making Success

By: Jason Huber, Assistant Professor of Law Charlotte School of Law

We are all familiar with how practical and pedagogical issues limit the ability of law schools to provide students with traditional clinical opportunities.  In order to expand experiential offerings to students outside of the clinic setting, Charlotte School of Law utilizes capstone classes.   While capstone classes come in variety of forms, we use a course model which blends doctrinal study with practical application.  Recently, our students achieved substantial milestones through one of CSL’s capstone offerings.

In the fall of 2009, I was charged with developing a civil rights clinic.  Working with Professor Adcock, CSL’s Director of Experiential Learning, we saw an opportunity to kill two experiential learning birds with one stone.  Rather than a faculty member designing and implementing a clinic program, we created a Civil Rights Capstone course where students were responsible for researching and developing the civil rights clinic themselves.  The class required students to assume a mock attorney-client relationship with CSL.  They were assigned the task of assisting CSL in creating a civil rights clinic which would provide both a rigorous educational experience and much needed service to the community.  Throughout the class, the students studied the history of the clinical legal education movement, substantive civil rights law, the availability (or lack thereof) of potential remedies, different pedagogical clinical theories and also surveyed many clinicians concerning the nuts and bolts of their programs. 

While doing so, the students discovered a significant hindrance to their client’s goal–the United States District Court for Western District of North Carolina did not have a student practice rule.  After researching various state and federal student practice rules, the students drafted and submitted a proposed rule to the district court.  Chief Judge Robert Conrad and the Board of Judges for the Western District directed Magistrate Judge David Cayer and the Clerk of Court Frank Johns to work with us on creating a rule.  Based on the student drafted rule, after some discussion and editing, the Western District adopted its first ever student practice rule on June 24, 2010. 

We have already seen the fruits of our labor.  On July 1, 2010, CSL student Candace Davis became the Western District’s first certified student practitioner where, under the supervision of Claire Rauscher, Executive Director of the Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina, she represented clients in multiple arraignments, bond and probable cause hearings.

In addition to their successful rule making, the capstone students’ end of the semester presentation to the CSL administration concerning their clinic proposal was very well received and served as the blueprint for our existing Civil Rights Clinic. John Arco, Kevin Beck, Tanea Hines, Jeffrey Ellingsworth, Kevin Vidunas, Hector Henry and Brian Chapman were the students responsible for these successes.

While capstone classes are no substitute for actual clinical offerings, they can provide students with “real world” learning opportunities that build substantive knowledge and problem-solving skills while serving others.   As such, the capstone experience is an important arrow in our experiential learning quiver.

4 Responses

  1. I completely agree with Jason about the necessity of providing students with opportunities to pull together the skills/values and doctrine they’ve spent most of their law school time trying to digest. Ideally that experience would involve a practical component — representing live clients or otherwise engaging in the actual practice of law — so that all that book and simulated learning actually gets a test drive. It is only in that integration that students get to experience the essence of lawyering, which, for much of the time, means acting with integrity, confidence and compassion in the face of not knowing exactly what you’re doing. When students have that experience in law school, coupled with guided reflection and supervision by reflective practitioners and teachers, they are so much better prepared to deal with that reality out in the world. When done well — with many opportunities for reflection and feedback — capstone courses — what we at Mitchell call Keystones — provide such opportunities.

  2. I am excited by the ideas discussed in Jason’s post and Carolyn’s comment. I agree that capstones (keystones) can be, and often are, a useful set of arrows in our experiential learning quiver, but I also think there are important instructional and curriculum design considerations that need exploration as part of the process of creating capstone courses, externship experiences, and genuine clinical experiences. These comments are not intended to speak to any particular law school’s efforts at reform. I am not knowledgeable enough about either Charlotte’s or William Mitchell’s efforts to reach any conclusions about those law schools, and, in fact, from what I do know, many or even all of my comments are inapposite.

    On the curriculum design level, there’s an important distinction between what we offer and what we require. Changes to offerings are not, in my opinion, significant curriculum reforms because they do not allow an institution even to make claims that its graduates possess a defined set of skills, knowledge and values. In my opinion, if a law school allows its students to graduate from law school having never had an integrative experience, an experience that forces students to combine knowledge, skills and values in a setting of uncertainty, that law school has not adopted what I would regard as a meaningful reform. A law school makes a statement about what it stands for by what it requires.

    On the instructional design level, I do not believe any required course is inherently good or inherently bad. It’s all about how these experiences are designed. I have no doubt that many capstones (keystones), many externship experiences, and most clinics are rigorous, thoughtful courses that perfectly align with the desired outcomes that drove their creation. I also believe that some capstones lack the uncertainty of real-world problems or fail to force students to confront the types of values challenges characteristic of law practice or fail to require students to engage in the reflection essential to long-term effective law practice.

    On the values front, for example, one story from my own practice has echoed in my head throughout my almost 20 years of law teaching. I will never forget my first client interview; the client, a senior partner’s largest client, responded, without blinking, to my question about what happened that gave rise to a dispute I would be handling by saying, “What should I say happened?” Without measuring defined outcomes relating to uncertainty, reflection, and values, how can we make claims about such courses?

    Similarly, externships can expose students to real clients and authentic legal work or be limited to quasi-paralegal work, minimal reflection, and no effort to develop professional values. Even some clinical experiences may not involve an optimal level of uncertainty or adequate emphasis on values and reflection skills development.

    Absent multiple, varied, systematic, and reflective outcomes assessment and careful, reflective curriculum design, we will forever be relegated to merely hoping our curricula achieve our goals.

  3. I very much agree with Profesor Grose’s comment. Professor Adcock’s innovative capstone provides a fascinating blueprint and hybrid pedagogy for those of us who are working towards synthesizing the lessons of doctrinal and clinical courses with valuable pro bono and summer internships. Needless to say, these kinds of opportunities — mandatory or otherwise — provides a vital link between the academy and the legal community. Moreover, by having students conduct research on topics that are responsive to and/or relevant to the needs of the legal community, students learn the importance of collaboration in trying to solve the many resource issues that face the legal profession.

  4. Very cool. I recently saw another reference to a practicum in which the students designed the course. I think the topic was mediation or client interviewing and counseling.

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