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Experiential Learning Immerses Penn State Law Students in Career Realities

Penn State Law in University Park students work alongside faculty in a hands-on atmosphere that takes them beyond the books through experiential learning.
Penn State Law Experiential Learning

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State Law in University Park students work alongside faculty in a hands-on atmosphere that takes them beyond the books. 

Penn State Law faculty encourage experiential learning – both in courses, and in nine clinics and one practicum – to augment students’ coursework and help them develop the confidence to serve as leaders in a range of legal fields, from criminal defense of indigent populations to international law and legislative advocacy:

In experiential law school programs, students work and earn academic credit as they foster lifelong relationships with peers and mentors. Also, opportunities like the simulations in the National Security Law II course taught by Vice Admiral (Ret.) James W. Houck, the interim dean of Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs, provide students with a sense of what to anticipate in actual national security scenarios. 

More than 35% of Penn State Law’s students are employed as student workers, including as research assistants for professors both in the law school and in the clinics, in addition to other roles that provide valuable work experience.

Clinical lessons for criminal defense careers

For students seeking a glimpse into the actual realities of defending indigent clients, the Indigent Criminal Justice Practicum allows them to assist on actual cases under the local Centre County Public Defender’s Office – through a Trial Track and Criminal Appellate/Post-Conviction Track.

Students interview their clients, advise them of their rights, provide legal advice, and represent them in trial court, in addition to negotiating plea offers with the prosecution on their behalf under the supervision of Penn State Law Professor Richard Settgast, a former public defender, and Elizabeth Ramos, a Centre County Assistant Public Defender and adjunct professor at Penn State Law.

Third-year J.D. program student Kimberly M. Lennox said she represents her own clients on a weekly basis.

“Richard and Beth spend six hours each week at the Public Defender’s Office training us, conducting practice exercises, and providing feedback on our performance,” Lennox said. “This degree of experiential learning has provided me with a unique opportunity to practice what I hope becomes my career in an environment with a 2:1 faculty-student ratio and plenty of individualized attention.”

Professor Settgast, a Penn State Law alumnus, has mentored students through the Indigent Criminal Justice Practicum since co-founding it nine years ago. The group now includes dozens of alumni working as public defenders and trial attorneys in a range of jurisdictions in Pennsylvania and across the country. 

“As they get experience in court, as they represent clients and argue before judges and juries, you really see the law student fall away as they discover how to proceed as a professional attorney,” Settgast said. “The students who have gone through this clinic are growing in number and making an impact.”

Law school innovations include DA’s veteran mentorship program

For third-year law student and Army veteran Dan Clarke, the idea to establish a veteran treatment court in Centre County came through the requests of local servicemembers and veterans who wanted to provide a legal mechanism to address veterans involved in the criminal justice system.

Clarke works as a research assistant for Michele Vollmer, the law school’s associate dean for clinics and experiential learning and director of the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic. They began meeting with local veterans, lawyers, and members of the Penn State community more than two years ago to identify the issues facing veterans involved in the criminal justice system.

Through 2020, Clarke and a group of veterans and advocates worked collaboratively with Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna to establish what would become the Centre County Veterans Mentorship Program and the DA’s Veteran Treatment Track Initiative. Following months of research and discussions with surrounding county courts, judges, and courts in other states, the team established a mentorship program that assists veterans in completing tasks necessary for them to succeed in their treatment track.

“Working as a research assistant was crucial because it gave me my initial experience in dealing with real people and their issues, going beyond the textbook and experiencing what it’s like to practice for the benefit of people I get to know and work with,” Clarke said.

Clarke added that Penn State Law continues to provide him with support and access to a wide-ranging network of professionals to inform decision-making on the veteran mentor program.

“The talent pool and community resources Penn State affords are second to none when it comes to starting up a program designed to help a potentially vulnerable segment of our population,” he said.

Steering national security simulations

Carter D. Westphal, a Juris Doctor candidate for the Class of 2022, said the simulations in the National Security Law II course taught by Vice Admiral Houck exposed him to the realities of how authorities respond to national security threats.

“Vice Admiral Houck lets students take the wheel as they navigate the interplay between national security law, politics, and policy – a task that becomes less daunting after repetition and weekly feedback,” said Westphal, who hopes to interact with international, national security, and cyber-related legal experts as part of his U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) appointment after graduation.

National Security Law II has been characterized as a groundbreaking course that provides students with opportunities like a Feb. 15 planned simulation in which each group will meet with a "U.S. president” – a role played by Mary Beth Long (Penn State School of International Affairs professor of practice and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs) and retired U.S. Navy Admiral, Craig S. Faller (former commander of the U.S. Southern Command).

In the simulations in National Security Law II, students replicate legal practice in the national security environment, simulating legal issues as they arise in situations of competing domestic and international political interests, with considerations paid to challenges like time constraints and potential mass casualties.

Students involved on issues from Supreme Court to solar energy to insurance law

Penn State Law professor of practice and director of the Trial Advocacy Program, Christopher C. French, recently co-authored the release of the sixth edition of the book “Insurance Law in a Nutshell” (West Academic Publishing) which examines the fundamentals of insurance law.

Third-year J.D. program students Garvey McKee and Emory Robertson assisted French on the project. Penn State students also assisted French with his recently released 2021 edition of his insurance law treatise, New Appleman Pennsylvania Insurance Law.

Penn State Law in University Park clinics also include the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, which gives students a place to focus on appellate advocacy, develop research skills, draft briefs, assist in case selection, develop substantive legal positions, and plan appellate strategy.

Civil Rights Appellate Clinic students recently worked under the guidance of Penn State Law Professor Michael Foreman, the clinic’s director, to file a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that seeks to clarify the rights afforded to servicemembers under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

“My experience working with the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic on this petition was discussed in every interview for post-graduate employment, and the experience ultimately helped me secure my dream job,” said Nick Martiniano, a third-year J.D. program student who works at the clinic and serves as a law clerk for the New York State United Teachers union.

Experiential learning is also common in the classroom. Professor Hannah Wiseman – who teaches law courses on Land Use Regulation, Property, and Renewable Energy Law & Energy Justice – said her students recently completed an experiential class in which they drafted ordinance options for counties in Pennsylvania that are experiencing growth in solar development.

Students have developed a sense of industry trends working for Wiseman as research assistants, serving in roles that allow them to dive into issues by helping with interviews of stakeholders and collecting information related to trends in rooftop solar, community solar, and home battery systems, for example.

“My students have been instrumental in a project for which I’m involving lots of J.D. and LL.M. students to research the different energy transitions that many countries are experiencing as many move from fossil fuels to lower-carbon sources, which exposes them to issues of protecting communities and jobs,” Wiseman said.

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