By Kelly Collinsworth, Lecturer, Experiential Learning, Interim Associate Dean
In the words of famed comic book writer Alan Moore, "There is no substitute for practical experience."
As a student, I found my law school’s most impactful class was the clinical practicum that I participated in during my third year. Until that time, it was difficult for me to imagine what the practice of law would look like and how attorneys related to their clients. For 11 years after law school, I worked at Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, a civil legal services provider in rural eastern Kentucky. At Legal Aid, which even then suffered from staffing shortages, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool with no lifeguard on duty.
For my first six months on the job, I was the only attorney in a regional office that served multiple counties. Within days of passing the bar, I found myself in a hearing defending parents against grandparents in a child custody case. I immediately appreciated my law school clinical preparation. Based on this early professional experience, I made it a career goal to ensure proper training and adequate supervision for new attorneys, while also providing them with the confidence in their own abilities to enter practice as soon as they passed the bar.
Producing attorneys who are competitive in today’s legal market does not allow the luxury of “on the job” practical training. While law schools have recently been criticized for not teaching enough practical skills, USD Law has always valued the need to produce practice-ready graduates. Many of you probably took the South Dakota Practice course (now called Law Practice Drafting) that offers training in legal document drafting from South Dakota legal experts in various practice areas. The school also has a strong tradition of providing opportunities for students to learn through trial, appellate, negotiation and mediation simulation training. This tradition of preparing students for practice is what attracted me to the new USD Law position of lecturer of experiential learning.
Since coming to USD Law in June 2019, I have had the opportunity to meet with many attorneys, judges, legal staff and active community members across the state. The reception has been overwhelmingly supportive of both the law school and potential new collaborative projects. I have been lucky to have the opportunity to talk to many different constituencies about the legal needs of residents of the state and also the skills that new lawyers must possess to serve those needs. Most of the attorneys in the state attended law school at USD and retain a commitment to the school and the future lawyers it produces. The school’s faculty and staff are also extremely open and supportive of innovative strategies for serving and preparing our students.
The American Bar Association now requires law students receive a minimum of six credit hours of experiential training, which can include simulation courses, clinics, practicums or externships. Schools must provide “substantial opportunities” for experiential training and pro bono opportunities. Fortunately, USD Law already offers a substantial variety of opportunities for students in this area, and its hiring of new experiential faculty demonstrates its commitment to furthering those offerings and assuring that our students are ready to practice.
Students can participate in simulation courses such as Trial Techniques, Antitrust Law, Discovery Practice, Law Practice Drafting, and Negotiations and Settlement. Director of Experiential Learning Professor Ramon Ortiz, along with doctrinal faculty, Professors Tom Simmons and Allen Madison, provide students with practical skills while helping clients in the areas of tax law for rural Alaskan residents and estate planning through the Tribal Wills Clinic. There is also a popular criminal practicum offered by Minnehaha Public Defender Tracy Smith, where students represent clients in court under the supervision and training of Smith. With the success of this program, there are plans to expand to the federal public defender’s office.
Each year, up to eight students are selected to participate in coveted positions at the Federal Tax Clinic, which is a federally-funded clinic to provide representation to low-income taxpayers with federal tax controversies before the IRS, IRS Appeals and the Tax Court. The clinic is currently directed by Professor Ortiz, while the newly hired Tax Clinic Director, John Miscione, gets up to speed. Currently, students in the Tax Clinic are representing more than 50 clients in tax matters. Having never done any tax work before coming to USD Law, I have been impressed by the level of representation and impact work that the clinic provides. Ortiz’s tax expertise and standing in the legal tax community provides students with access to cases from all over the country. The tax work the students do not only affects the amount of money that the clients receive or owe, but also can impact clients’ ability to gain work or even citizenship in this country.
"While law schools have recently been criticized for not teaching enough practical skills, USD Law has always valued the need to produce practice-ready graduates." - Kelly Collinsworth
By increasing the number of faculty working with students to provide experiential opportunities, we can provide an individualized approach to serving our students, especially in the area of potential externships. The Externship course allows a student to work with a supervising attorney to learn “on the job,” while a classroom component reinforces the concepts and encourages students to reflect on their accomplishments and challenges. The supervising attorney agrees to provide goals and feedback and to communicate with Experiential faculty regarding the student’s progress. Students can take the Externship course during the regular semester for up to three credit hours or for six credit hours in the summer. Currently students have participated in Externships with more than 35 different law providers in South Dakota and surrounding states. Recent additions to the externship offerings include opportunities to work with health or trust law compliance.
Students who want to gain experience through the Externship course can contact an attorney to set up the initial externship opportunity, or they can meet with USD Law staff to discuss established opportunities. If students cannot find the right fit, we will work with them to discover or create opportunities. Recently, several students have discussed their desire to work in the summer at an international law firm. In addition to students applying through established international internship providers, we are reaching out to alums working in foreign countries to see if they can host a student. Other students have talked with me about finding openings in distant states, where they hope to relocate upon graduation. In those instances, I work with faculty to establish contacts in other states.
Additionally, to expand opportunities for our students while recognizing the rural nature of our location, we are experimenting with our first remote externship placement. The Innocence Project of Minnesota will host student externs to work remotely with their supervising attorney for South Dakota. The attorney will come to the law school several times during the semester to train the students and will then Skype and e-mail regularly to monitor their casework. Allowing for some remote opportunities permits students to gain experience and provide service in practice areas not readily accessible to them locally.
Even if you have only met me one time, you likely know that I love Harry Potter and find a way to insert it into most conversations. Therefore, I would say that USD Law is committed to expanding the experiential opportunities for our students and to helping serve the legal needs of our communities. Unlike Professor Umbridge, who “can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell,” our faculty and staff are committed to making our students practice-ready in and out of the classroom.
If you are interested in having a law student extern under your supervision, please contact Kelly.Collinsworth@usd.edu or 605-658-3538. You can also add jobs, externships and internships to our career services website at https://law-usd.12twenty.com/hire.