Success Story: Pilot project takes flight for students, Inns of Court

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

A recently completed pilot project, which partnered the Oakland County Bar Association's American Inns of Court chapter with law students from Cooley Law School's Auburn Hills campus, was deemed successful.

And chances for continuing the program look bright for the future.

"I think it went very well," said Oakland County Circuit Court Judge James Alexander, chancellor of the OCBA Inns of Court. "It was a win-win for both (Cooley students) and the OCBA."

That's good news for Lauren Rousseau, Cooley's assistant dean and a professor of civil procedure, who implemented the first-time partnership. She said the Inns of Court is a national organization designed to improve the skills, professionalism, and ethics of both the bench and the bar.

Rousseau said Cooley has been active with the OCBA and its Inns chapter, and was permitted to bring a group of law students to the Inns meetings as guests. But last year, Associate Dean John Nussbaumer approached the Inns executive committee and asked if they "could take it a step further," Rousseau said.

And they agreed.

Normally, the OCBA Inns program is a rich mixture of judges, attorneys, and occasionally law school professors, who meet monthly from September through May to meet, network, and hold programs and discussions on matters of ethics, skills and professionalism, Rousseau said.

Membership is comprised of Masters of the Bench, Barristers and Associates, with each designation up the ladder requiring more years of practice and experience. All those people are then divided into teams, with a mixture of each designation, and each team conducts a program at one Inns meeting. Each team is given a common fact pattern, and teams are then assigned various aspects of the case to present, usually in skit form, Rousseau said.

For instance, one team may deal with jurisdiction and venue of the case, another with motions, and others with dealing with the media, direct and cross examination of witnesses, and settlement negotiations.

And for the first time, third-year Cooley law students were added to the mix, as clerks.

"This is a great opportunity for our students to interact with practicing attorneys and judges who can provide mentorship, and a vehicle for networking, which hopefully starts them on the path toward finding a job before they even get out of law school," Rousseau said.

She selected eight Cooley students for the pilot project based on academic standing, leadership characteristics and good moral character, all hallmarks required for the Inns program itself.

And Rousseau said this is part of the continuing effort at Cooley to teach its students with the best possible professors, and give students the best opportunities available to pass the bar and find a rewarding job in the legal field of their choice.

"We strongly encourage, and try to present, all kinds of opportunities for our students to interact with the legal community before they graduate for the experience, to help them figure out what they want to do with their law degree, and to network to find a job," Rousseau said.

She said those factors are important whether the economy is strong, or weak, as it is now.

"So this whole process of trying to start that well before they graduate enhances their ability to do that, to talk with lawyers and judges, and get a sense of what's out there, and develop relationships that could lead to jobs."

That partnership with students also enhances Cooley's prestige, she said. "Our success depends on their success," she said.

It seems to be working, especially with the Inns of Court project.

Lauren Frederick, one of the students involved in the pilot project, said one of the biggest pluses for her was meeting people in the legal field and see how course work applied in the "real world."

"It was very helpful, and I consider us lucky to have had the experience," Frederick said.

Dan Cieslak said the program "was awesome."

He said meeting judges and attorneys helped open doors to potential future jobs.

"And the more doors that are open, the better," he said.

Abigail Jennex was impressed that the judges and attorneys involved in the Inns project were willing to accept the students input and become a part of the team.

"It's a testament to Cooley that we could offer something, even though we are law students," she said.

She also found the enthusiasm of everyone involved contagious, and everyone there was there to learn and become a better attorney or judge.

Other students involved on teams were John Hohmeier, Matthew Marguerite, Ashley Jenkins, Matthew Consolo, and Charley Jackson.

Rousseau said initial feedback on the students' participation was positive.

"I think it went great, and they found it a really rewarding experience," she said.

Nussbaumer thanked Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Pat Donofrio and Circuit Court Judge Alexander, the OCBA Inns chapter, and its executive board, and all the judges and lawyers who welcomed Cooley student participation in the project.

"We share a common commitment to ethics and professionalism, and this program has helped instill in our students a better understanding of the importance of those concepts," he said.

Alexander said the inclusion of the students "added another dimension" to the training they do at the Inns of Court and "added another fresh perspective from these young students who have yet to go through the battles of litigation."

Although the continuation of the program requires a decision from the executive committee, Judge Alexander deemed it a success.

"I hope it continues, and I look forward to that," he said.

Published: Tue, Jun 7, 2011

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