National Think Tank Calls Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program ‘Proof’ of Legal Education Reform
UNH Law’s Unique Program Is Innovative Model Creating Client-Ready Lawyers
The University of New Hampshire’s prestigious Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program has earned more accolades, this time from a national group of experts called together to align law schools with the needs of the legal profession.
That project, called Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, is an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, based at the University of Denver in Colorado. Its founding director, William Sullivan, is a former senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the lead author of the foundation’s influential 2007 “Carnegie Report,” which called for a “sea change” in legal education.
That sea change – providing students with measurable experience as practicing lawyers in addition to the theory of law – has already happened at UNH Law, says Sullivan. He calls the Webster Scholar program “existence proof” that law schools can, in fact, relate teaching and learning to professional competence and use reliable methods to assess students’ progress and readiness for practice.
The Webster Scholar program was created in 2005 through a unique partnership between the New Hampshire Supreme Court, UNH Law, and the NH Board of Bar Examiners. The project was spearheaded by current NH Chief Justice Linda Dalianis, who before her time on the state Supreme Court had spent about two decades as a superior court judge, noting that the young lawyers she saw in the courtroom didn’t seem ready for prime time.
“Our little group just thought that the old methods of admitting people to the bar were not necessarily producing good lawyers,” Dalianis says in the 2011 book Law School Confidential, which devoted a chapter to the Webster Scholars program. “I know any number of people who were able to pass the bar exam that nevertheless should not be practicing law, and I know a handful of people who haven’t been able to pass the bar exam because they simply don’t do well on standardized tests who I believe would make excellent lawyers. So why not try something new?”
The Webster Scholar program eliminates the two-day bar exam and in its place offers a two-year exam: Through a combination of simulations, externships, and clinics, students interview and counsel clients, take depositions, appear before judges, draft business agreements, and develop their skills and judgment. They create portfolios of written and oral work, which are examined each semester by bar examiners. In short, students practice law before they graduate.
UNH Law Professor John Burwell Garvey, who has directed the program since its beginning, says the program was designed to respond to an earlier report calling for reform in legal education, the 1992 American Bar Association paper widely known as the “McCrate Report,” which lays out the “fundamental” skills and values new lawyers should have.
“Upon completion of the program, Webster Scholars are expected to know how to advise clients and use existing resources, to be well versed in the substantive law and to have the insights and judgment that usually develop after being in practice for some years,” Garvey says.
The program, which began as a pilot for 15 students, has been expanded and now admits up to 24 students in each class, who participate in their second and third years of law school.
Sullivan and his team from Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers spent time studying the Webster Scholar program at UNH Law this past spring.
“As measured by the performance of its graduates, the results seem to be extraordinarily positive,” Sullivan writes in the September issue of the New York State Bar Journal.
Kristen Blanchette, a Webster Scholar who graduated in 2010, says the program taught her to believe in herself and provided her with a long-lasting network of colleagues, professors, and practitioners.
“The program has proved that the education, skills, and training will benefit anyone – in any geographic location and any field,” adds Blanchette, who practices health care law in Los Angeles. “I feel prepared for things that come my way because I know I can rely on some of the basic skills that I learned in the program.”
Third-year student Beth Smith says the program has given her the practical skills and training she needs to be a confident and effective advocate. She is interning as a judicial clerk for Chief Judge Joseph Laplante at the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, and she will join the New England law firm Bernstein Shur as a full-time attorney next fall.
“The program challenges me each day to identify and resolve complex legal issues, make calculated decisions, and reflect upon my own personal and professional development,” Smith says. “Through the mentorship and guidance of dedicated professors, practitioners, judges, and local volunteers, the program is training me to be a young lawyer, rather than merely think like one."