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Center on Professionalism’s Nuts & Bolts series gives students hands-on experience

July 25, 2016

Penn Law students have the good fortune of encountering a vast array of guest speakers who visit the Law School — noted scholars, expert practitioners, and even the occasional Supreme Court justice. These visitors are often at the peak of their legal careers and are able to serve as preeminent role models of the sophisticated attorneys Penn Law students may one day become. But before students acquire the experience and skill necessary to emulate these accomplished practitioners, they are eager to learn what the first few months or years of their career will look like.  

“We wanted to create a program that demonstrates for students the skills they will need to perform the tasks they will be assigned during the very early days of practice,” said Jennifer Leonard L’04, director of Penn Law’s Center on Professionalism (COP).

To help students prepare for the early years of practice, COP has created a series of programs it offers through its Penn Law Practices portfolio. This hands-on, highly interactive suite of programs provides students with a variety of opportunities to learn about and practice some of the skills they will need in practice.

Through COP’s programming, students get a glimpse into how their skills and interests will align with different practice areas. One popular program under the Penn Law Practices umbrella is the Nuts & Bolts Series for 1L students, a collaborative effort among COP, Legal Practice Skills, and Alumni Relations. This three-part series gives students a chance to learn about and engage in the kinds of tasks that a junior attorney would be assigned in practice.

“By attending a Nuts & Bolts session, students learn — directly from practitioners — what is expected of young lawyers in particular practice areas,” said John Bradley, Legal Practice Skills Lecturer. “Through this exposure, students are able to evaluate whether a practice area is the right fit for them, they are better prepared to articulate their interest in interviews, and they gain a real-world understanding of what they should be prepared to do during their first months on the job.”

Penn Law offers the Nuts & Bolts series each spring, and students can choose from three different programs: litigation, corporate law, and lawyering in the public interest. Each program consists of a 75-minute workshop led by two Penn Law alumni who are practicing attorneys — one new member of the bar who is currently tackling the kind of work recent graduates will handle, and one senior attorney who can provide a more global perspective on how a junior attorney’s discrete assignments support the larger client representation.

During each session, students get to practice what they would be doing as junior attorneys through a series of exercises. For example, in the litigation workshop, attorneys might work with students to create requests for production of documents, interrogatories, and explore other aspects of e-discovery strategy.

In the corporate law workshop, on the other hand, past leaders have asked students to work with a binder of documents for an upcoming closing. Based on changes relayed to them by the senior attorney in the lead-up to the closing, students determined what they needed to update in the closing binder and were also required to understand and be able to explain why those updates should be made.

During last year’s lawyering in the public interest session, Rob Ballenger L’04, an attorney with Community Legal Services, presented students with a common problem a client might bring to CLS: the City had shut off the client’s water because the client’s landlord — who was responsible for paying the water bill — had neglected to pay the bill. Ballenger guided the students in developing questions an attorney might ask during the client intake stage, identifying the client’s immediate needs, the various ways the attorney might meet those needs, and the pros and cons of bringing a class action suit on behalf of similarly situated tenants of the same landlord.

“The Nuts & Bolts Series is a valuable tool for both our students in attendance and our alumni session leaders alike,” said Corey Fulton, Director of Alumni Relations. “In creating and leading these hands-on programs for current students, our newer Penn Law graduates are allowed a unique opportunity to take a step back and think critically about their indispensable roles as junior attorneys in supporting specific deal teams and litigation teams; managing senior attorney, partner, and client requests; and furthering the overarching goals of their practices and organizations.”

Along with the hands-on experience that students gain in the Nuts & Bolts workshops, they also develop a more sophisticated understanding of various professional pathways they might pursue, allowing them to be better prepared to provide answers that underscore their stated practice area preferences during job interviews.

In addition to the Nuts & Bolts Series, COP also offers as part of its Penn Law Practices suite stand-alone workshops and bootcamps in other practice areas, including an e-discovery workshop, led by Pepper Hamilton’s head of e-discovery, Jason Lichter; a four-day Deposition Skills Bootcamp, which culminates in a full mock deposition judged by expert litigators; a three-week Private Equity Bootcamp led by a team of  partners from Kirkland & Ellis; and a three-week Mediation Bootcamp led by Ellie Wertheim L’97 and Abby Tolchinsky, who manage their own family mediation practice.

In some instances, COP serves as a runway for programs that may ultimately become credit-bearing options. The Private Equity and Mediation Bootcamps are two examples of programs that have been so successful that they will soon become credit-bearing additions to the curriculum. The transition of these programs to credit-bearing classes allows COP to develop new experiential workshops and bootcamp programs to offer students additional opportunities to develop new skills and learn more about specific practice areas. 

The Center on Professionalism supports Penn Law students with programming that prepares them for success as professionals in an evolving legal landscape. In addition to the practice skills Penn Law Practices programs teach, COP offers a variety of other programs that support the mastery of skills such as leadership, management, confident and purposeful communication, relationship building, organizational savvy, executive technology, personal productivity and effectiveness, high-level strategic thinking, and team dynamics.