Bootcamps introduce Stanford Law’s clinic students to skills, knowledge needed for real life as attorneys

Religious Liberty Clinic Director James Sonne leads clinic students through bootcamp activities.

Stanford, Calif., April 10, 2014 – Students of Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic are delving into lawyerly life with an intensive introductory educational experience most commonly known as “bootcamp.” Based on the medical school model, SLS’ 11 clinics require students to devote themselves full-time to working as lawyers, which means representing real clients and tackling real legal challenges. And because clinic students must maintain the work schedule of a practicing lawyer, they do not enroll in any other classes during the quarter. This clinical model has become increasingly valuable for Stanford Law students—two-thirds of recent graduates have participated in at least one clinic.

With bootcamp, which takes place all day during the first several days of the new quarter, students participate in various activities designed to make the most of their clinic experience and prepare them for the everyday realities of practicing law.

Of course, preparing for bootcamp itself is a challenge because students do not always know what to expect. In fact, the very term “bootcamp” inspires different reactions in clinic students.

“Visions of military life popped into my head,” notes third-year student Paul Harold, who participated in the Religious Liberty Clinic. But it soon became clear that “the hard work was meant to instill in me an appreciation of the complexity of legal practice.”

Janice Mau, a third-year student who participated in the Organizations and Transactions Clinic, was relieved about having a methodical introduction to clinic life.

“I thought they would just throw us in,” Mau says.

Each clinic director determines the schedule of activities for his or her clinic’s bootcamp, but there are some universal themes.

Clinic students quickly become immersed in their respective communities, so the bootcamps often involve an immediate introduction to those communities. Bootcamp for the students in the Community Law Clinic, for example, is conducted at the clinic’s office in East Palo Alto, where the clinic is based.

“Before turning to the law and skills the students will need for their cases, we spend our first day in getting-to-know-you mode, and reflecting on the methods and goals of clinical legal education,” says Professor of Law Juliet Brodie, Director of the Community Law Clinic and of the Mills Legal Clinic and Associate Dean for Clinical Education. Students also learn about the social history of East Palo Alto and perform a storytelling exercise to inspire empathy for the client experience.

According to Ron Tyler, Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Defense Clinic, the students must understand “that they are visitors in the community and the level of respect they owe the community.”

Learning practical skills is also a critical feature of the clinic experience, so clinic faculty use bootcamp to begin teaching those skills by simulating the most important aspects of daily legal practice.

During bootcamp, students in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic receive thorough instruction in how to effectively interview clients. They prepare an outline for a client interview and perform the interview on videotape with hired actors or with clinical faculty. Students then assess their performance with the help of faculty and fellow classmates and revise their outlines accordingly.

Working on interviews was one of second-year student David Watnick’s favorite things about being in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. For Watnick, direct service to clients is one of the most appealing aspects of practicing law and bootcamp helped him elevate his client-interviewing skills beyond his expectations.

“I attribute what I see as my success to what I was taught,” Watnick says. “When I have an interview, I still think about techniques that were taught in bootcamp.”

For Tyler, preparing students to interact effectively with clients is also a major priority. In collaboration with Senior Lecturer in Law Janet Martinez, Tyler holds workshops in which hired actors simulate typical client interviews with the students. The students then participate in debrief sessions with Tyler, Martinez and the actors.

These are “structured mock activities that focus on real-world experiences in a safe learning environment, Tyler says.

Religious Liberty Clinic students participate in a conference call during bootcamp.

Bootcamp also allows students to begin acquiring substantive knowledge about important subjects, such as evidence, procedural rules and the law of their clinic’s practice area.

“The most helpful aspect of bootcamp was the introduction we received to transactional law,” says second-year student Krista Whitaker, who also participated in the Organizations and Transactions Clinic. “Looking at the big picture in bootcamp before drilling down to the specifics really benefited our work moving forward.”

Harold enjoyed seeing how the legal doctrines of religious liberty and the history of religious liberty are uniquely intertwined. According to Harold, historical context is particularly important for attorneys who advocate for religious liberty, and bootcamp really brought that to life.

Finally, bootcamp is highly collaborative, which helps prepare the students to work with each other on behalf of their clients during the entire clinic experience.

Without bootcamp, Mau believes, the students would not have gotten to know each other as well. Mau values how bootcamp allows students to identify each others’ strengths and knowledge base, and to prepare to work collaboratively as a team—as members of a law firm—rather than as individual students.  And as her clinic-mates’ personalities began to emerge, the clinic experience became less intimidating.

Watnick agrees: “Right off the bat, we developed a very honest working relationship.”

Looking back at bootcamp, students clearly appreciate how the entire experience prepared them especially well for clinic life.

“Bootcamp introduces students to the foundational concepts of our practice and provides students with a vocabulary for understanding our experience,” says third-year student Matt Owens, who participated in the Community Law Clinic’s bootcamp. “It’s also an important bonding period—it’s the period when a group of students becomes a firm.”

“We spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be a lawyer,” Harold adds. “It really drove home for me that being an attorney is so much more than knowing the law.”

Given the intensity of the entire clinic experience, it is also important for students to learn stress management skills. For Tyler, teaching students how to care for themselves is an essential feature of clinical instruction. He believes strongly that reducing stress on students during bootcamp and throughout the quarter is an important step in teaching them to care for themselves both as clinic students and as future attorneys. In fact, Tyler offers an eight-week course on attorney self-care as part of the Criminal Defense Clinic to teach his students to “acknowledge the vicarious trauma” they experience through their clients’ distress and to utilize tools that can help them cope, such as mindfulness and meditative practice.

“We ask a lot of students in the full-time clinic experience,” Brodie says. “I hope they are impressed by the awesome responsibility of being someone’s lawyer, and excited by the prospect of putting their knowledge into action.”

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