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    Dozens of law practitioners return each spring to the U.W. Law School to help teach the Lawyering Skills Course. Read what motivates these lawyers to share their knowledge and experience with law students.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 77, No. 11, November 2004

    Class Action

    Dozens of law practitioners migrate to the U.W. Law School each spring semester to spend several days helping to teach the lawering skills course by sharing their knowledge and experience with future lawyers. Why do they do it?


    Prof. Ralph Cagle and Prof. Gretchen 
    Prof. Ralph Cagle and Prof. Gretchen Viney of the U.W. Law School faculty are directors of the Lawyering Skills course. The goal of the course, Cagle says, "is to teach law students what lawyers really do."

    by Dianne Molvig

    In countless ways, Wisconsin lawyers donate their time, expertise, and experience to serve others. Some attorneys do so by heeding what could be referred to as the annual Cagle Call.

    Each year, Ralph Cagle, a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Madison, recruits attorneys to assist in teaching the Lawyering Skills Course, for which Cagle serves as director and faculty member Gretchen Viney is associate director.

    Some 80 lawyers and other professionals respond, arriving on campus to teach for typically a four-day stint sometime during the second semester. The course covers the range of skills all lawyers use, in whatever areas they practice, including client interviewing, communicating, counseling, negotiating, drafting, advocating, problem solving, and more. "The goal," Cagle explains, "is to teach law students what lawyers really do" through a learning-by-doing approach.

    The attorneys who help teach the course represent a wide diversity of practice areas. They come from large offices and solo practices, from urban areas and small towns. For some, the trip to the law school is a short stroll down State Street from their downtown Madison offices, while for others it's a several-hour drive from distant corners of the state.

    They put in a full schedule each day, usually teaching in the afternoons and preparing, planning with coinstructors, and grading students' work in the mornings. For that, they receive $50 per day, although some donate the money back to the law school. Even for those who pocket the small stipend, their efforts essentially amount to volunteer duty.

    studentsNo program like this exists at any other law school in the country, as far as Cagle has been able to determine. While some law schools offer general practice skills courses, he notes, they are taught mostly by regular faculty who may bring in practicing attorneys to teach a single class session. "I know of nothing anywhere else," Cagle says, "that's on the scale of what we do here."

    In fact, he often receives inquiries from law school deans who'd like to replicate the U.W. program. But once they find out how the course operates, invariably they question how it's possible to recruit so many practicing attorneys to give so much of their time for so little pay. "There is a profound generosity at the heart of this," Cagle emphasizes.

    We asked a few of these generous souls to share some thoughts about their involvement in the program. Why do they participate? What do they think they impart to the law students, mostly 3Ls? And what do these attorneys themselves take away from the experience?

    A Matter of Service

    U.S. Highway 51 hits its northern endpoint in Hurley, Wis., where on Silver Street you'll find the law office of solo practitioner Paul Sturgul. Since the local mines closed years ago, the community has shifted to a primarily elderly population. Sturgul's practice focuses on elder law and estate planning.

    Come late winter, he'll head down Highway 51 toward Madison, nearly 300 miles away, to join three other attorneys in teaching a unit on estate planning and other elder law issues. "I get back a lot," Sturgul says of his teaching week. "It's the whole idea of service."

    That concept applies not only to his teaching contribution but also to his overall perspective on his profession. "I do what I do as a lawyer," Sturgul explains, "because it makes my heart sing. The money is a happy byproduct, not why I do what I do. I think it's important for students to see that."

    Beyond teaching about estate planning and elder law, he also answers the sorts of questions on many 3Ls' minds as they edge toward graduation: What's it like to be a solo practitioner in a rural area? How does he develop his practice? How does he run his office?

    What's more, the course allows students a chance to meet lawyers from all over Wisconsin, which Sturgul cites as another benefit. "We want students to see," he notes, "how diverse the legal profession is in this state."

    As it did for Sturgul, the urge to serve spurred Baraboo attorney Nancy Thome to agree to teach the skills course. "Service is important to me," she says. "I learned that from my parents, who were always volunteering their time." Plus, she's had a bent toward teaching ever since her two years in the Peace Corps, training elementary school teachers in the Central African Republic.

    Thome also has found participating in the course at her alma mater to be a boon personally. "The students' excitement and freshness of outlook is infectious," she says. "And being back on campus and at the law school is exhilarating. I think attorneys get too caught up in the daily grind. To me, you need to create some space in your professional life for other opportunities."

    Thus, for several years Thome helped teach the creditor/debtor proceedings section of the skills course (she recently changed her practice focus to estate planning and probate after returning from maternity leave). Back then, her specialty was bankruptcy law. "My perception is that most students don't want to be bankruptcy lawyers," she observes. "They think, `That's so scummy.'"

    Thome tried to present a more realistic view by talking about the agonizing emotional decisions most people go through when facing bankruptcy, counter to prevalent presumptions. "I've had clients threaten to commit suicide," she says. "So I talk about that with the students - about how you're not just crunching numbers and filling out forms. You're counseling people."

    Showing the Human Side of Lawyering

    When Milwaukee attorney Pete Ramirez received his first teaching invitation from Cagle three years ago, he jumped at the opportunity to "show students what happens in the real world," he says. "You're teaching soon-to-be-lawyers what it's like out here. When I was in that position, I had no clue."

    Ramirez participates in the divorce proceedings portion of the course. He and three other attorneys team up in a panel-discussion format to present to the entire class of some 70 students. Then they break into small groups. "It's fantastic," he says. "It's very individualized learning. When I'm in the class, I don't try to act like a hotshot. I talk to the students as I would to other lawyers, and I think they like that."

    Building that peer relationship also allows Ramirez to share his experiences with and attitude toward divorce proceedings. Put together two angry people and an emotionally charged situation, he points out to the students, and the result is an area of the law in which animosity and bitterness easily can ignite between the attorneys involved.

    "I tell students," Ramirez says, "that this is one area of law that can really test you professionally. I tell them in any area of the law, it's not worth getting all worked up. There's no need for us to display ourselves in that fashion. It's not good for the profession."

    Mark Pennow


    Green Bay attorney Mark Pennow also strives to convey that message to law students. "I do my best," he says, "to undermine the notion that we have to be Rambo every day. What I hold out to these folks is that we can achieve far more in the legal profession through consensus than we can through confrontation. We save confrontation for when it's really needed."

    Another key component of the lawyering skills course, in Pennow's view, is showing students that lawyers, of whatever age, are real people with real lives. "I think a lot of third-year students," he says, "experience this trepidation about running into the ogres that run law firms. In this course, they see what we're like and, more importantly, what we're not like. You walk into the room, tell a joke, and in addition to laughing politely at your terrible joke, they smile with relief that you're not some stuffed shirt who's going to give them a rough time."

    On top of that, Pennow says he's gained personal rewards over the years as he's participated in teaching different portions of the course. Teaching law students is "a rejuvenating process," he says. "It gives me a fresh outlook on what I take for granted from day to day. It's almost like a vacation for me; it's that rewarding. It just makes you feel good about being a lawyer. That sounds corny and trite. But it does make you feel you're doing something to make the legal profession a better place to make a living."

    Lisa Stark


    Going Back to Give Back

    Getting a realistic picture of lawyers' lives, professional and personal, is part of what students seek from the skills course, according to Eau Claire County circuit court judge Lisa Stark. Back when she was practicing civil law, she taught the unit on preparing for civil trial during four different semesters. While doing so, she fielded lots of inquiries beyond course content.

    "They want to know what you like," Stark says, "and what you don't like. What about free time? How does family fit into the scheme of things? What's it like in the northwest part of the state? Why should they go there versus Chicago? They have lots of questions."

    For Stark, the rewards came from sharing ideas with students and fellow faculty, often learning something she was able to use later back in her own practice. "And at the end of the week," she notes, "students say `Thanks, we enjoyed working with you. We learned a lot.' That's pretty satisfying."

    Years before teaching the course, Stark took it as a law student. Now that she's on the bench, she assumes yet another role in the class - serving as judge during the civil trial week, when students get to put the skills they've learned into action in a simulated civil trial.

    Whether serving as an instructor or a judge, "I feel it's an honor and privilege to be asked to do it," Stark says. "I consider it a way of giving back to the law school, as others have done before."

    Shannon Whitworth


    Milwaukee attorney Shannon Whitworth graduated from law school in 1996; he also is a former skills course student. Not long after finishing law school and entering practice, he volunteered to help in the course segment called the skills intensive training weekend. In those two days, students use the various skills they've learned to represent clients on both sides of a legal transaction. Some 30 volunteer attorneys come in that weekend to critique the students' performance.

    Since his first teaching experience, Whitworth has been back many times to teach in other components of the course. "Every time," he says, "I've got another year under my belt, and the students are another year younger."

    Whitworth is still close enough to his law school days to relate to what his 3L students soon will encounter. "Coming out of law school is a scary time," he notes. "Hopefully these students will wind up missing some of the land mines" that typically lie in new lawyers' paths.

    For Whitworth, the gratification comes from having "the opportunity to assist in bringing people along," he says, "and making them better attorneys. That also makes me a better attorney and makes the profession better as a whole."

    Indeed, he sees his participation as a professional obligation - but one that reaps rewards all around. "From a selfish perspective," he notes, "I benefit, we all benefit, by having better lawyers."

    Jeffrey Roethe


    Shedding Light

    Months ago, attorney Jeffrey Roethe blocked out a week in February 2005 when he'll make the daily 50-mile round-trip from Edgerton to the U.W. Law School. By his count, next semester marks the 27th time he's participated in the course. Having taught various units over the years, he now teaches estate planning and business organization.

    In the business unit, he and his students work through a business start-up, from negotiating the initial acquisition, to solving employment problems, to selling the enterprise. "I'm on the spot," Roethe says of his role in the course. "The students put me on the spot all the time. I say to them, `This is our law firm for the week. So ask me anything you want.'"

    Learning to participate in group dynamics is one of the elements of the skills course that Roethe feels is most valuable. "We sit around in our small group," he explains, "and we act like a law firm. We ask, `How are we going to approach these problems?' It's a great learning tool for law students."

    For his part, watching a student "get it" is one of the biggest satisfactions. "It's fun," Roethe says, "when somebody is talking about tax codes, for instance, and I diagram what happens on the board, and then all of a sudden someone says, `I never understood that before.' The light goes on. That's what our role is" as teaching practitioners.

    Cate Furay


    Madison attorney Cate Furay remembers witnessing similar moments over the years as she's taught different segments of the course. One such incident occurred at the end of a skills intensive training weekend. "I was walking down the hall," Furay recalls, "and I heard a student who was coming out of a negotiation session say to her partner, `I'm a lawyer!' Not I'm going to be a lawyer, but I am a lawyer. We had done what we're supposed to do to help the students make that mental shift."

    Guiding students through that transformation as they approach the finish line in their law school careers is part of what keeps Furay coming back year after year to teach. "A lot of it is that you get hooked," she says. "Every week I teach, it reinforces for me what a wonderful, generous profession this is."

    The U.W. model could work at other law schools, Furay maintains, adding that a strong factor in the U.W. program's success "is we're blessed to have Ralph (Cagle). He's well-known and well-respected by the bar."

    Being involved in various national organizations, Furay meets lawyers all over the country who give their time to aid the profession. That experience leads her to suggest to other law schools that they "find someone like Ralph" and be open to the possibilities. "I think most law school deans would be surprised," she contends, "how many lawyers would be willing to give this a shot."