ETL Ignite: The Portals to Practice – Experiential Education at Touro

Guest Post

This post is one of a series that stems from our 4th Annual Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers Conference. The author(s) presented a six-minute Ignite-style presentation at the conference that discussed the innovations and outcomes of their school’s classes, programs, or curricula—or within the realm of legal education more broadly. The videos will be available here and in our Resources section as they become available.

At Touro Law Center, we have developed the 1L Pro Bono Project, a mandatory first-year program that integrates basic doctrinal knowledge, an introduction to professional skills and values, and a commitment to social justice. Our curricular reform is predicated on a multidimensional perspective that conceives of legal education not as a horizontal continuum, but rather as a learning web where 1L students form a central core from which they build outwards, in multiple directions, towards greater competency levels.

The objectives of the 1L Pro Bono Programs, which currently include uncontested divorce and landlord-tenant matters, are to assist unrepresented litigants in resolving legal issues; to work collaboratively with the bench and the bar; and to provide our students with an opportunity where values and skills are developed in the real world of legal professionals and are directly linked with classroom learning. Since all litigants must meet financial eligibility requirements, students learn that we are providing access to justice for persons who would not otherwise be able to afford them. The contact with a real litigant propels the student into a world they cannot understand by sitting in a classroom; the process and products involved in these contacts provide the students with “living” examples of real lawyering.

To prepare students for their litigant contacts, the Fall semester begins with a Poverty Simulation activity, facilitated by the NYS Office of Court Administration. 1L Students must assume the roles of families and attempt to negotiate systems. For 3 hours, students are clients. For most of the students, this is the beginning of developing cultural competency. That is followed by additional sessions devoted to interviewing, confidentiality, and introductions to both matrimonial and landlord-tenant law. The Spring semester is hands-on training culminating in the “client” contact, either sitting together at a computer inputting data and generating divorce papers, or sitting in the courthouse completing an intake for an unrepresented tenant and then observing landlord-tenant negotiations.

In both of the 1L projects, students interview litigants to gather information needed to help solve legal issues. In the Landlord-Tenant courthouse, students obtain data needed for attorney-litigant conferences and stipulations of settlement. In the divorce project, students see how “Drafting Libraries” produces court papers based on the information the litigants have provided. Students review, with the litigant, the summons with notice, advising litigants of their rights. Students see the Affidavit of Service, and now understand why it’s important. Due Process begins to have real meaning. Classroom learning coalesces with experiential education. 

By the end of the first year, our students have been provided not only with 30 credits of doctrinal law but have also participated, limited as it may be, as fledgling members of the legal profession.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this years Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers Conference in October to deliver this presentation, but my colleague Rodger Citron stepped in for me and the video is below.