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Penn State Dickinson School of Law Offers Practical Skills Courses for Its Students
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Penn State Dickinson School of Law Offers Practical Skills Courses for Its Students

Summary: Dickinson School of Law has announced a 12-credit experiential requirement for all students, which it claims will allow them to be better prepared to enter the practice of law than students of other schools that lack such a requirement.

Penn State Dickinson School of Law is planning to completely revise its legal curriculum for its students. reports that the changes will commence in the 2015 school year. It’s a well-known fact in the legal community that graduating students are often unprepared for practicing law. Dickinson Law plans to produce graduates who are better prepared for attorney life. It pledges to “[produce] practice-ready lawyers for a competitive, global market.”


Some law firms have prepared attorneys by implementing a mandatory training period. With such a program, first-year associates first receive months of practical training before they are able to bill clients.

Interim Dean Gary Gildin stated that the school hopes to provide students with necessary training by combining classes with opportunities for experiential learning. For example, in the first year, students may be expected to conduct interviews for prospective “clients” in the Bethesda Mission’s legal clinic.

By graduation, students must have fulfilled a twelve credit experiential requirement through work at Dickinson’s in-house clinics, with a government agency or non-profit association, a local internship, or in a new “practice-in-residence program” where most credits will be earned by working with mentors in Harrisburg, Washington, D.C., or other cities.

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In addition, faculty has developed courses for other types of job-specific training. For example, the “Lawyer As…” curriculum encourages students to take electives that are targeted at specific careers, such as public interest positions, prosecutors or public defenders, or even business advisers. Other classes will teach students project management or business development. This will also allow students to explore the different ways they can use their law degrees. Gildin stated, “in a tougher legal marketplace, it will help them go into that marketplace with maximum ammunition as to their qualifications.”

David Santacroce, president of the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education at the University of Michigan, stated that learning major cases and legal doctrine, which is what most law schools emphasize, accounts for less than one-third of what lawyers do in practice. “The rest is psychology, strategy, client counseling. It’s playing chess. And you can read a lot of books about playing chess. But you don’t really know how to play chess until you start playing.”

Edward L. Rubin, former dean of Vanderbilt Law School, stated that students in contracts classes, for example, learn about contracts, but spend very little time, if any, learning how to read, draft, or negotiate a contract.

Law schools nationwide are getting the message. A 2011 study by the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education stated that 80 percent of law schools that reported said that at least half of their students would have participated in a live-client or field placement program.

Dickinson Law stands apart, however, due to its demanding twelve-credit requirement. The law school was fully accredited by the American Bar Association in June, which will be effective with the 2015 entering class. The school also plans to cap the entering class sizes at 75 students per year, to provide individualized instruction to each student.

Gilden is hopeful that the program, in addition to the school’s proximity to many courthouses, the Capitol, and federal government offices in D.C., will give the school “unique attributes that are going to allow us to do this as well as or better than anyone else.”

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  1. Jeff Spangler

    September 4, 2014 at 6:41 am

    Dean McConnaughay is a specialist in the dual-campus law school, having
    done it for other schools, and that’s why he was hired to manage the
    Penn State Dickinson project. Many older alumni were infuriated by the
    apparent breach of a “side agreement” to keep the School in Carlisle
    forever by having two campuses. I don’t know if it’s the case anymore,
    but for many years Dickinson had a substantially higher pass rate on the
    Pennsylvania bar exam than other Pennsylvania schools, including the
    Ivy League pinheads at Penn. The Dickinson School of Law remains a
    solid institution buoyed by the bucks of Penn State, and dedicated to
    its origins as Pennsylvania’s oldest “Proud and Independent” law school (i.e. independent of a larger university). Even if everyone has a law degree, it’s still a
    good general purpose graduate education for a world in which law has an
    impact on every corner of society, even if you don’t practice in
    traditional settings. But then you’ll need the M.B.A. too, which
    everyone seems to have. I’m retired and thankful for my days at

  2. Jeff Spangler

    September 4, 2014 at 6:45 am

    As an alumnus of the The Dickinson School of Law, I understand they
    passed on the opportunity to create a Harrisburg campus, which is why
    Widener is there. It’s good to see this shift of focus to “experiential
    learning” from the (not very) good (but very) old Socratic method of
    teaching law. This harkens back to the really olden days when law
    students were required to serve a “preceptorship” in a law office after
    “reading law” for two years . If less time were spent on the dithering
    and obtuse Socratic method, the Juris Doctor degree could probably be
    earned in two years rather than three and better lawyers would be the
    result. Just my opinion– every lawyer has one about almost everything.

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