Keeping the Bar High

By Ron Brown, February 17, 2016
B. Keith Faulkner (left), dean of the Liberty University School of Law, converses with first-year law student Benjamin Allison and second-year law student Jonathan Trotter in Liberty’s Ehrhorn Law Library.

B. Keith Faulkner (left), dean of the Liberty University School of Law, converses with first-year law student Benjamin Allison and second-year law student Jonathan Trotter in Liberty’s Ehrhorn Law Library.

As it heads into its 10th year of accreditation, the Liberty University School of Law remains steadfast in its mission to educate highly competent, work-ready lawyers. This goal is accomplished, in large part, by placing students in real-world professional environments through the Center for Lawyering Skills, legal centers and clinics, externships, and internships.

Liberty Law’s externship program offers opportunities at more than 200 sites in a variety of legal settings. Students can gain legal experience with public interest and policy organizations, trial and appellate courts, and government agencies. The program extends the classroom — allowing students to blend legal theory with practical skills in a professional legal setting.

“What you learn in the classroom makes a lot more sense when you apply it in context,” said Suzanne Caruso, the law school’s associate dean for career and professional development.

Liberty Law students are placed in externships at no cost to the employer and get academic credit for their experience. Relationships with multiple Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ offices, as well as Legal Aid of Virginia and various congressional offices and governmental agencies, make valuable externship opportunities available to Liberty students. In recent years, students have also externed with the United States Attorney’s Office, National Child Protection Training, United States Secret Service, Indiana Attorney General’s Office, and the United States Army JAG School.

“We are constantly reaching out and working hard to grow our externship programs,” said B. Keith Faulkner, dean of the School of Law (a position he assumed on Oct. 1). “Many permanent legal positions are derived from externship experiences.”

Increasing the number of organizations that partner with Liberty Law for internship and externship opportunities will require personal interaction between administration and potential participants.

“Associate Dean Caruso, her staff, and I will be scouring Virginia, North Carolina, and other places for participants,” Faulker said. “Finding new partners will require outside-the-box thinking. Our vision must expand as we become more engaged with local and state bars at a meaningful level.”

Internships, unlike externships in the public sector, are mostly with law firms. Internships allow Liberty Law students to get paid while gaining practical experience in the legal community.

“Students learn how to do a laundry list of things that they will need to do in practice,” Faulkner said. “They learn to interview clients, draft legal documents and pleading, prepare discovery and take depositions, engage in oral arguments, and a litany of other things.”

The benefit for agencies and firms who hire Liberty externs and interns is that Liberty Law students are already familiar with the many different kinds of work that young associates typically encounter, thereby reducing their learning curve.

In addition to practical experience, Liberty Law students can distinguish their résumés by performing well against other law students in competitions such as moot courts, mediations, negotiations, and client counseling.

Moot courts enable students to refine their analytical skills and present their findings both orally and in writing. Moot courts are widely recognized by judges and law firms as the activity that best prepares students for practicing law.

While moot court competitions provide experience in typical court proceedings, mediation competition equips law students with client-based skills. Preparing for mediation teaches students to discover facts, advise clients of relevant law, and provide options on how to proceed in a case.

According to Caruso, the law school does everything possible to prepare students for success, but the lion’s share of responsibility falls on the law students themselves.

“They must commit to a work ethic, a dedication to their craft, and a proper understanding of the law,” she said.

Their commitment to those values has paid off. Liberty’s latest bar passage rate in Virginia was 93.3 percent — the highest rate among first time test-takers in the commonwealth. It was higher than Washington and Lee University (91.49 percent), the University of Virginia (89.58), and the College of William & Mary (88.57). This percentage is nearly 20 points higher than the average passage rate (75.62 percent) in Virginia. Furthermore, Liberty’s overall passage rate (77.27 percent, including those retaking the bar exam) is above the commonwealth average (71.05).

“The Virginia Bar exam results reflect a faculty committed to helping students succeed and a willingness to engage in constant self-evaluation to improve the delivery of our program of legal education,” said Rena Lindevaldsen, Liberty Law’s associate dean for academic affairs. (Lindevaldsen served as interim dean of the law school from October 20, 2014-Oct. 1, 2015.) “Even more importantly, the success this year in Virginia reflects a student body who trusted their faculty to equip them with the tools to succeed and then dedicated the countless, exhausting hours of study needed to pass.”

Over the past year, the law school has retooled its curriculum to ensure bar passage rates remain high. Emphasis has shifted from summary reviews of instruction to legal writing, an essential skill for passing the bar.

“Our faculty set very high expectations for our students, and the students responded,” Faulkner said. “As widely recognized experts in their fields, our faculty are here because they believe in our mission. Our students are hungry to impact their communities, our nation, and the world. I have challenged the faculty, staff, and students to turn this year’s success into a trend.”

Faulkner added that he is dedicated to working with his team and community to make Liberty Law an exceptional law school in every regard.

“We want to have a successful and sustainable program,” Faulkner said. “Our goal is to produce great lawyers.”

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