Thursday January 19, 2006

Let's Talk About It

The School of Law has won an international award for its new curriculum that requires every student to learn how to resolve cases outside the courtroom.

Even though the vast majority of cases never make it to trial, only a small percentage of law students nationally graduate with any significant exposure to the skills needed to resolve cases outside the courtroom, according to Lisa Kloppenberg, dean of the University of Dayton's School of Law and a national expert in this type of dispute resolution.

That's why the School of Law's new curriculum caught the attention of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution, which will present the University of Dayton with an award for excellence at its annual meeting in New York on Jan. 19. The institute is a nonprofit alliance of the largest global corporations, law firms, scholars and public institutions. It works around the globe to promote negotiation, mediation and arbitration over the more expensive, time-consuming litigation.

As part of a new "Lawyer as Problem Solver" curriculum launched last August, all University of Dayton law students take at least one course in appropriate dispute resolution tailored to their area of interest, a class in interviewing and a capstone course integrating practical and theoretical skills. They also will be exposed to real-world problem solving through a required externship. Proposed short one-week courses include international commercial arbitration, environmental mediation and community mediation.

"The University of Dayton law school's curriculum was chosen because the judges believed its unprecedented focus on problem-solving throughout the entire curriculum should be honored for its breadth," said Helena Erickson, senior vice president for research, development and education for the institute.

UD officials expressed pleasure and surprise when learning of the award last week. "We're so pleased to have this kind of affirmation from such a prestigious organization. I give the faculty credit for taking a risk and making bold changes in the curriculum," said Kloppenberg, a professionally trained mediator who started an appropriate dispute resolution program at the University of Oregon in the 1990s and co-wrote the 2005 textbook, Resolving Disputes: Theory, Practice, and Law.

Nationally, "law schools have been behind the curve in recognizing that students must develop proficiency in the areas of mediation and negotiation," said Lori Shaw, assistant dean of students and professor of lawyering skills. "Less than 5 percent of criminal and civil cases make it to trial. It's not a question of will we negotiate or mediate, but how will we negotiate or mediate. In criminal cases, plea bargains are common. On the civil side, many courts, including the ones in Montgomery County, require mediation."

While a number of schools offer programs or tracks in appropriate dispute resolution, "I'm not aware of law schools making it a required part of their curriculum," Shaw said. "Here, it's not an isolated class. Everyone gains exposure throughout the curriculum. With this award, the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution is applauding our effort to make this as much a part of legal education as how to read a case critically and analyze it."

Kloppenberg has spent more than two decades working to dispel the "gladiator image" of lawyers and advocate that they resolve cases before they hit the courts. "Many students come into law school with a notion they picked up from the mass media. The lawyer stands up in court, makes a long-winded argument and sways you by his words," she said. "We teach our students the value of being concise, that the focus is on being an advocate for your client. You have to choose the most appropriate approach."

The University of Dayton's new curriculum has been in the national news since last summer because students can choose an accelerated option and skip the third year of law school. It's the first and only five-semester law degree program in the nation, prompting attention from Time magazine, the national Associated Press wire, National Public Radio, CNN Radio, the national legal press and regional media.

Currently, law school applicants nationally are down 11.3 percent, according to the Law School Admission Council. The University of Dayton's applications for next summer and fall are running ahead of last year's strong volume, which UD officials attribute to the popularity of the new curriculum and increasing national recognition. Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked the school's legal writing program 20th in the nation.

Contact Lisa Kloppenberg at (937) 229-3795 or Lori Shaw at (937) 229-3794.