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Center on Professionalism teaches students the human side of law

September 15, 2014

Jennifer Leonard L’04, Director of the Center of Professionalism and Associate Director for Professional Development, discusses the importance of professional skills and they are critical to the practice of law.

Law school has traditionally provided students with two standard skill sets: the doctrinal and analytical skills they learn in their core curriculum and the legal research and writing skills they learn in their Legal Practice Skills program, their journal membership, clinical placements, internships, and pro bono work. 

But according to Jennifer Leonard L’04, Director of the Center of Professionalism and Associate Director for Professional Development, there’s a third set of equally important skills—a “third dimension”—that has not always received as much attention. Professional skills, which include executive communication, team building, public speaking, and project management, deal with how we work together, and they are critical to the practice of law. 

“The mastery of that third dimension creates a holistic practitioner and sets Penn Law graduates apart from other graduates in the marketplace,” said Leonard. “That’s where the Center on Professionalism comes in. We believe that all professionals need to be able to provide superior client service and we aim to provide students with an opportunity to practice those skills through the programs COP administers.” 

The programming begins for new members of the Penn Law student community on September 22, when all 1Ls participate in Professionalism Day. Over the course of the day, students are exposed to the professional skill sets COP fosters through a keynote address from a prominent alumnus with a wealth of experience in the private, public and non-profit sector, and panel presentations from other alumni and 3L students who have a strong understanding of those skills and their importance to effective professional performance. The 1L students are divided into professionalism cohorts of around 15 students that meet for the first time during Professionalism Day, and each cohort is led by an administrative liaison, many of whom are alumni, as well.  In these cohorts, liaisons introduce students to COP, to the importance of professional development and provide information about upcoming COP programs and other ways in which students can practice these skills now so that they enter the job market better prepared for the realities of practice. 

The cohorts meet three more times during the year, discussing topics such as balancing academic responsibilities with summer and post-graduate job searches, receiving and applying performance feedback, and tips for practicing client service during students’ 1L summer legal internships. The liaisons act as professional role models and resources for the 1Ls as they navigate the challenges that come with the first year of law school. 

A new program that also begins this September is a two-part series in project management for upper-level student group leaders. This series, led by Teresa Valls L’92, an alumna who is a professional project manager, will show leaders from Penn Law student groups how to prioritize short- and long-term goals and how to assess the talents and interests of individuals on their teams and delegate tasks to team members strategically to maximize the likelihood that the group’s event will be a success. The practice of these skills now also serves as valuable career training for future lawyers, all of whom must be able to manage tasks effectively, meet deadlines and work collaboratively with other team members.

Strong communications skills are also an important aspect of professional life, and COP has teamed up with Ann Fischer from the Wharton Communications Program to provide one-on-one communications coaching sessions for students. In these sessions, students can set goals for communications development, practice their skills, and receive constructive feedback that will help them improve their performance. 

Other programs COP offers throughout the year include training in Microsoft Word and Excel; drop-in sessions for students looking to set up professional LinkedIn profiles; a brown bag language exchange program that lets L.L.M. students practice their English and J.D. students practice either French, Spanish, Mandarin, or Japanese; and a Spanish Language for Legal Professionals Boot Camp, which teaches students who are highly proficient in Spanish legal vocabulary through simulations of legal interviews, depositions, and trials. 

Another new initiative for this year is programming on effectiveness coaching, run jointly with Student Affairs. Through the coaching, students can learn how to maintain confidence, tackle adversity and to take better care of themselves in general.

“A major component of being a professional, but of being a lawyer in particular, is handling a lot of stress,” said Leonard. “There’s internal stress from the supervisors and team members in your organization, and there’s external stress because you’re dealing with many complicated legal issues in high-stakes situations on behalf of your clients. We want to teach students now the ways to cope with that stress and deal with it in a healthy way so that they can improve their ability to effectively counsel their clients and move toward the goal of each representation.” 

To help students learn more about these nuanced aspects of academic and professional development, COP will host a session in February with Gail Cummings, an attorney and psychotherapist who counsels many practicing attorneys and brings a wealth of experience on the types of stress most frequently encountered in practice and tools for managing that stress effectively. Cummings will help students understand the importance of stress management, confidence and viewing one’s self as a holistic professional rather than a collection of academic statistics or professional wins and losses. 

Finally, the Spring Nuts and Bolts Series provides a glimpse of what awaits students in the years immediately after graduation. In this series, junior practitioners visit Penn Law and guide students through a series of exercises that reflect the kinds of work they will soon be asked to do as junior associates at a law firm or as newly-minted public interest lawyers. Currently, sessions focus on litigation, corporate law, and criminal prosecution and defense. 

By getting this taste of real-world experience, students can better assess which types of practice areas appeal to them and be better prepared for early responsibilities at the start of their careers. 

“When you get into practice, you have to know how to deal with human beings who are your clients, your team members, and your colleagues,” said Leonard. “Our programming is designed to amplify students’ legal skills by giving them training in the skills needed to understand the human elements involved in the practice of law.”