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Dean's Desk: Notre Dame expands course, clinical offerings

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dean-newton-notre-dameGreetings from the University of Notre Dame Law School. I’m honored to have this opportunity to share some of my experiences and initiatives with the readers of the Indiana Lawyer, and I look forward to continue learning from my fellow deans as well.

After decades of steady prosperity, unprecedented changes and challenges have come to the legal profession. During the good times, applicants to law schools could expect a wide variety of choices in the private or public sectors. While tuition increased steadily, public and private loans were plentiful and many law schools provided generous loan repayment assistance programs to encourage graduates to take lower-paying, but challenging and satisfying positions in the public or nonprofit sector. Private sector salaries increased, and the top firms competed with each other for our best students by raising associate salaries and creating 2L summer associate positions that appeared to be comprised of a series of outings and meals at expensive restaurants, interspersed with with occasional assignments.

And then came the recession – longer, deeper, and presaging more structural changes in law practice than any of the recessions before it. Big firms are hiring fewer attorneys to fill fewer first-year associate positions and have discovered to their chagrin that clients are no longer willing to pay for first- and second- (and sometimes third-) year associates at the high rates that have become customary. Many firms have also downsized their training programs and joined the call for law schools to produce graduates who can make the transition from classroom to practice more quickly.

I won’t join the crowd that either puts the blame for these problems on the law schools or the group that argues we have no reason to change what has worked so well for us for decades. I do not believe any newly minted lawyer can truly be expected to hit the ground running the moment she passes the bar exam. Some degree of on-the-job training will always be necessary. But as educators, we can make sure that in addition to the theoretical and critical-thinking skills we have always excelled at imparting, we also make sure our students have the opportunity to acquire more of the law-practice and professional-relationship skills that will better prepare them for the changing nature of law practice.

To meet these challenges, Notre Dame is offering more interdisciplinary courses to expand the breadth of our course offerings, five new programs of study to enable our students to pursue areas of particular interest in greater depth, and expanded experiential learning opportunities.

For many years, the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic served as a general civil legal services litigation practice for the law school. Recently, the clinic’s work has begun to evolve to better reflect the changing legal marketplace, the range of practice areas that NDLS graduates will enter, and the needs of the South Bend community. In January, Clinical Professor Robert L. Jones Jr., became our first Associate Dean for Experiential Programs. In that position, he will be leading an expansion of experiential learning opportunities at NDLS.

New clinical offerings are already under way. The NDLS Mediation Project serves individuals litigating civil disputes in the courts of St. Joseph and surrounding Indiana counties. Cases include both civil and domestic relations matters, including child custody, support, parenting time, landlord-tenant disputes, contract disputes, and other matters referred by the courts for mediation.

Other initiatives are designed to expand the clinic’s transactional services to the business community. The Notre Dame Community Development Project launched this fall to assist community-based for-profit and nonprofit enterprises. This new NDLS clinic provides students with supervised legal practice experience representing nonprofits and small businesses in transactional matters, including corporate formation, tax exemption, risk management planning, regulatory compliance and real estate transfers. The Community Development Project is being led by professor Professor James Kelly, who comes to NDLS from Baltimore where he successfully built and led a similar clinic. Professor Kelly has deep experience in community development and was recently asked by Pete Buttigieg, South Bend’s new mayor, to co-chair a task force on abandoned housing in South Bend.

Meanwhile, the NDLS Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship Clinic just opened this January. Under the supervision of the newest member of our clinical faculty, Jodi Clifford, students gain valuable experience in applying intellectual property law to client problems and offer assistance to local businesses and entrepreneurs. Professor Clifford comes to NDLS from the Cleveland office of Thompson Hine, where her practice incorporated all aspects of intellectual property law.

In addition to the clinics, we have externships in asylum law, in intercollegiate athletics administration (which, as you can imagine, is a very popular choice for Irish students), and at the public defender’s office. Dean Jones is considering how we might offer additional opportunities for fieldwork by expanding in new geographical areas as well as new areas of law. Creating programs in other cities such as Chicago that have a substantial Notre Dame presence will enable NDLS students to take advantage of fieldwork opportunities outside South Bend.

No one program – or series of programs – can counter all the challenges facing today’s law students, but like all the other Indiana law schools, Notre Dame is determined to be pro-active in adapting to the changing needs of the legal marketplace. We are fortunate to have a national group of alumni who are actively engaged with the law school. They hire and mentor our students but are also willing to provide invaluable advice about the changing nature of law practice. I am convinced that by listening and evolving, we can continue to give our students the best opportunity to use their talents for the benefit of their clients, their profession, and the common good.•

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Nell Jessup Newton is The Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009.

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