New Elon Law Lab enables first-year students to learn by doing

First-year Elon Law students, in their second trimester of study, are immersed in simulated law practice experience through the school’s new Criminal Law Lab.

First-year Elon Law students, from left, Danielle Wilson, Jaylyn Noble and Janelle Wendorf, simulate a plea negotiation in the Law School's Criminal Law Lab.  
The Criminal Law Lab is part of Elon Law’s push to put a greater focus on experiential learning, said Michael Rich, Jennings Professor of Law, who spearheaded the design of the course and is directing its implementation.

“The goal is for first-year students to have exposure to the process and the system, and to use their analytical skills in working with clients,” Rich said. “We view the application of legal concepts to unique client circumstances as a critical component of teaching students how to think like and be lawyers.”

The Lab is divided into six sections. They are taught by three Guilford County assistant district attorneys and three Guilford County assistant public defenders. Each section has about 20 students who are split up into groups representing the defense and the prosecution.

“Students learn to be persuasive, how to negotiate as adversaries and remain professional,” said adjunct professor Marcus Shields, an assistant public defender in Guilford County. “I think it deepens students’ knowledge of criminal procedure to have gone through a fact pattern from the beginning almost to the end.”

On the first day of the Lab, students receive a folder with a police report and some other paperwork similar to what’s found in a real criminal case file.

“As the course progresses, they’re collecting documents, and we follow the case through bond hearings, plea negotiations, and sentencing,” said adjunct professor and assistant district attorney Mary Ann Courtney. “We’ll simulate interviewing a witness. Maybe a second-year or third-year student will play the role of the defendant or the officer in the case, and the first-year students will interview them. The great thing about a class like this is that it introduces students early in their legal education to a more practical side, so they can see how everything they’re learning in criminal law plays out in court.”

Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman sees the Lab as an integral part of the school’s new approach to legal education.

“Experiential learning is integrated fully throughout Elon Law’s new curriculum,” Bierman said. “The first-year Lab leads to real-world legal projects and full-time residencies in students’ second year, and culminating bridge-to-practice courses. These experiences deepen student engagement in traditional courses and accelerate their professional preparation and maturation.”

The first-year Lab course emphasizes the interaction between two sides in the courtroom.

“I think that’s one thing that may surprise some people who haven’t had experience working with attorneys before this class,” observed first-year law student Chris Anderson. “The amount of information exchanged and discussion outside the courtroom is more than what many students would have anticipated.”

At the beginning of Shields’ class one evening, the students break up into their groups to discuss how to proceed with a case.

A hypothetical client, Mr. Duncan, is accused of having a substantial amount of cocaine and is facing a number of years in prison. First-year Elon Law students simulating defense attorneys and prosecutors try hammering out a deal. Should he be charged with trafficking? Should he receive drug treatment? Should he testify against an alleged drug ring?

Engaging the case through simulation helps first-year students understand how to navigate the criminal justice system.

“A lot of times, as a student, it’s hard to read a case in a case law book and be lectured to about how law is applied when you get out into the real world,” Shields said. “The Criminal Law Lab is about more than learning the elements of the crime. It’s about the individual person, whether that’s the victim or the defendant. Justice is an ever-turning wheel and this gives students the chance to experience it outside of a law book.”

After about a half-hour of discussion about Mr. Duncan’s case, student teams meet up with their opposition. The defense is trying to avoid a trafficking charge. The prosecution argues, however, that trafficking is a big issue in the case and must be addressed. They argue back and forth. The prosecution says if Duncan is willing to testify about a larger drug ring and plead guilty to a trafficking charge, it can drop the other charges. The defense argues that Duncan may not know the leaders of the drug ring and he could be in danger if he testifies.

Ultimately, the two sides agree that Duncan will plead guilty to trafficking and receive a significantly reduced sentence, with part of that sentence dedicated to drug rehabilitation. He will also speak anonymously to a narcotics commission about the drug ring.

Shields said since most cases wind up being settled before going to trial, plea negotiations are especially important.

“You get things accomplished by finding a middle ground,” he said. “You don’t get things accomplished by fighting dirty, so our demeanor is very important in what we do. We may not agree on everything, but you learn you can treat everybody with respect without compromising your case.”

In addition to Courtney and Shields, attorneys serving as adjunct faculty and teaching Elon Law’s Criminal Law Lab course this year include assistant district attorneys Chris Parrish and Kelly Thompson and assistant public defenders Brennan Aberle L’13 and Kate Shimansky L’13.

Reflecting on the Criminal Law Lab, first-year Elon Law student Jaylyn Noble said she feels like she’s “being put into the mindset of what an attorney does on a daily basis.”

“It’s taking what we learn in our core classes and allowing us to apply those lessons,” Noble said. “I like that it’s hands on. You get to see what it’s like being an attorney out in the field.”

More information about Elon Law’s experience-based curriculum is available here.