Innovative teaching series: Uncovering client stories in criminal defense course

Our faculty work together to bring legal theory and practice to life, whether in the classroom, clinic or courtroom. Known for their commitment to a "law-in-action" teaching approach, and equally, to the success of our students, our faculty make UW Law School a place where transformative learning experiences happen. This is the first profile in a series featuring innovative teaching at UW Law School. 

false"We're like archaeologists," Professor Michele LaVigne tells her third-year UW Law students. "We uncover the shards of a client's story, piece by piece, just like the scientists in South Dakota who discovered Sue the T. Rex."

LaVigne, along with Adjunct Professor Dean Strang, is teaching Defense Function, a new criminal defense course that combines practical and theoretical learning to equip future lawyers to start their own firms. The course focuses on the whole range of issues private practitioners face in criminal court, from attorney-client interaction to sentencing to managing cases and budgets.

She created the class in response to a trend in the legal services sector: more new law school graduates working at smaller firms or going into solo practice. The emphasis on criminal defense prepares graduates to contract with public defender offices, where caseloads are on the rise.

LaVigne tapped Strang to team-teach the course because, she says, "We wanted a top-of-the-line lawyer who understands the business side of private practice."

Students—and employers—appreciate the new course and the combined expertise LaVigne and Strang bring to the class, says student Rachel Krueger. "As private practitioners, we have to think about how we can manage our work and be profitable." When she graduates next spring, Krueger has a job lined up at a small firm where she’ll be the first attorney to practice criminal law. Her future employers were excited to learn she was taking the course, she says.

On this day in the classroom, students watch as LaVigne and Strang loosely reenact an actual 1996 Wisconsin court case that involved alleged hunting crimes. The two instructors, playing the roles of public defender and client in an intake interview, interrupt their performance frequently to invite critiques and questions from students.

The bones of a client narrative emerge, as LaVigne and Strang show how dialogue can build trust and rapport in an attorney-client relationship—or cause it to go awry. "You already have the DA’s account," Strang says. "In order to represent your client fairly, you need to take care to learn who he is, what he does, what he cares about."

Student James Drennan calls the class a "3-D learning experience," where he observes and interacts with attorneys who have been doing criminal defense for a long time. "Skills-based courses like these will help me hit the ground running after graduation," he says. "It's an invaluable experience, and might even make the difference between becoming a good attorney and a great one."

LaVigne says this semester's course serves as the beta version for what will become a larger instructional strategy. "We're talking about new approaches for preparing students to be very good at criminal defense in the everyday world of private practice."

But today, she and Strang are demonstrating for their students how to be legal archaeologists. "We're getting shards of information here, and we have to put them together. This case is our 'Sue,'" she says.

Submitted by Law School News on February 25, 2015

This article appears in the categories: Frank J. Remington Center, Articles

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