Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

Getting Your Hands Dirty: New School Legal Education

A look at DU’s Modern Externship Program

Reading cases and Gilbert Law Summaries, writing endless outlines, and even getting embarrassed in class if you can’t remember the facts of the case—all of this was supposed to help you think like a lawyer. And, if you can think like a lawyer, then you can practice law….right? This was the philosophy that dominated legal education for well over a century and was depicted in movies like “The Paper Chase” and Scott Turow’s book “One L.”

However, in 2014, while the doctrinal foundation—which grounds you in legal analysis and reasoning—remains critically important, schools are placing a greater emphasis on “experiential education,” focusing on creating an integrated curriculum that includes robust doctrinal classes but is buttressed by other experiential offerings. One key aspect of “experiential education” is schools’ willingness to provide many more opportunities for students to work with lawyers in the field through externships. Externships allow students to receive academic credit for monitored law-related work with corporations, nonprofits, private firms, judges, and local, state, and federal government agencies. For example, the Denver Law database has approximately 400 externships available to students at any given time.

Here, I take a closer look at how externships have impacted modern legal education. Three externship alumni—Antonio Mendez, Jennifer Lesh, and Tyler Geisert—lend their perspectives. Mendez externed with Judge Blackburn in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, Lesh with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and Geisert with the Attorney General’s office, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, and MarkWest Energy Partners.



AntonioMy extern supervisor knows evidence like the back of his hand; like a minister cites the Bible, he cites rules of evidence. I hadn’t taken the class but I learned so much just from listening to him and reading his writing…. But, one of my proudest moments involved the first order I ever wrote; an order for summary judgment. After the edits from the clerks and the judge, there was one sentence left in the order that I wrote on my own. I thought, that’s me in the law books. I remember showing my mother and thinking how I have worked my entire life to get that sentence in the books. I had finally made a mark.
— Antonio

JenniferWhen you’re in class and you read cases, they’re edited so that everything fits together perfectly. When you get out in the practicing world, you realize things aren’t quite so easy. This came to light when I was tasked with making revisions to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s employee handbook addendums to ensure they were compliant with state law, responsive to our interests, and aligned with our mission. I came to realize legal analysis is very complicated, and that everything in law isn’t wrapped up in a neat little package with a bow on top, like it is in school. — Jennifer

TylerIn the energy industry, there are a lot of regulatory things that can get in the way of doing business. Some people or companies may try to skirt or massage the rules. At MarkWest, regardless of whether it’s good news for the company, the lawyers always followed the procedures they were required to no matter how difficult a decision it may be. This is what drew me to the company. I knew I would be working with people who shared the same ethical standards that I think I have, and I think the best way to learn how to be an ethical lawyer is to watch and learn from others. – Tyler

Denver Law’s Legal Externship Program, along with other initiatives at the law school, are prime examples of how legal education in Denver and beyond is experiencing deep change. Of course, students are trained in doctrine, but externships, and experiential education overall, are a perfect complement to that foundation. To that end, Denver Law is hosting Externships 7, Scaling New Heights: Field Placements and the Reform of Legal Education at the law school from February 27 to March 2 to more closely examine the role of externships in legal education. Faculty, supervising attorneys, and practitioners from across the country will gather, and we invite you to join them.

We are always looking for ways to evolve so that the student experience continues to be instructive, rewarding, and even a little bit fun. Host an extern, attend the conference, and come learn what we’re all about!

By Alexi Freeman, the Director of Public Interest and Lecturer in the Legal Externship Program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Email externships@law.du.edu to learn more.



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