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The 1L Experience

Professor Sherman Clark

Professor Sherman Clark strides back and forth, left and right, at the front of 116 Hutchins. Clark (pictured here) has posed a question about why a property owner should have less liability when a licensee is on his property than an invitee (in tort law, a social guest is a licensee, while invitees are people such as business customers). A 1L in the torts class suggests one answer: To protect your autonomy, you should be able to keep your own house the way you want to, without fearing liability when your brother-in-law visits and injures himself.

"Bam, that is so good," Clark exclaims, with his trademark zeal.

The day’s class addresses limitations on liability for the way one maintains his land and property, and the conversation coils through topics such as falling-down psychiatric hospitals, skateboarders in big cement pipes, proximate cause, and, somehow, Walmart.

Everything about the class—the good energy between faculty and students, the fact that an established faculty member is teaching an entry-level course, the size of the class—is indicative of the focus Michigan Law has placed on the experience of 1L students.

In some eras in the past, says Dean Evan Caminker, a number of first-year classes were taught by visiting faculty and adjuncts. "A consensus has emerged that there are some problems with having visiting professors teach first-years, including the loss of potential mentorship. We wanted more continuity throughout the course of their years here."

As a result, experienced Michigan Law professors such as Clark, James Krier, William Miller, Richard Friedman, Richard Primus, and Ed Cooper teach required first-year courses, giving students early exposure to full-time tenured faculty members.

While some of those classes still enroll about 90 students, others have far fewer. Smaller classes allow for greater student participation in the learning process, says David Baum, ’89, assistant dean for student affairs and special counsel for professional skills development.

"We work very hard to ensure that our 1Ls have some classroom experiences that are more intimate and in smaller settings," Baum says. He adds that the primary focus remains the teaching of analytical skills and legal concepts, with the goal of teaching students how to think like a lawyer.

When Baum was a student at Michigan Law, he was taught research skills, as well as written and oral advocacy, by 3Ls known as senior judges as part of the Case Club Program. In 1995, then-Dean Jeffrey Lehman, ’81, inaugurated the Legal Practice Program as a way of professionalizing the instruction of writing, analysis, and other skills in the 1L year.

Michigan Law currently offers classes during both semesters of the student’s first year that focus on analytical writing, legal research, the drafting of briefs, and the presentation of oral arguments, taught by faculty members.

"We thought it was important to bring in faculty who had recent practice experience as well as teaching experience," says Philip Frost, ’73, director of the Legal Practice Program. "We were one of the first of the top law schools to professionalize a legal practice program, and we’re still in the leading group among the top law schools in terms of experience and the caliber of the faculty in the program."

A lot of the credit for the strength of the 1L experience, Clark points out, should go to Sarah Zearfoss, ’92, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid, and career planning. "She recruits the right crew," he believes.

Once that crew arrives, they are taught by professors who "all cherish the opportunity to help them think about the way they think about the law," says Clark, who also goes to lunch or dinner with all of his 1Ls in small groups so he can get to know them better. "The faculty invest a lot of energy in teaching these first-year courses. We have an ethic here of teaching, and doing it well."

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