Class of 2017 Baylor Law student Lena Proft.
Class of 2017 Baylor Law student Lena Proft. (Courtesy photo)

Tough love. That’s how young lawyer Brenna Buchanan saw a new program at Baylor University School of Law that put an extra hurdle between her and the law degree she earned last year. Buchanan was among the first crop of students who made it through Baylor Law’s professional development program.

The innovative program follows a nationwide trend of law schools focusing on developing students’ professional identities as lawyers. Baylor Law’s program has surpassed those at other Texas law schools and drawn national accolades. It broke new ground by offering students frequent professional development seminars—which closely resemble continuing legal education—presented by practicing lawyers on a wide variety of topics. Although students can pick and choose seminars to attend, it’s a mandatory requirement for graduation to log 18 hours spread out among the three years of law school.

Buchanan said that while she didn’t jump up and down to attend seminars in her free time, she found they were worthwhile. Now an assistant district attorney in the Rockwall County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, Buchanan said she learned tips that helped her present herself as a good job candidate and helped her avoid mistakes as a young lawyer.

“It kind of gave you a bigger overview of interactions you’ll have on a daily basis, and how to avoid little missteps that would show you are a rookie,” Buchanan explained.

Jim Wren, a Baylor Law professor and chairman of its professional development committee, said that when the school launched its program in 2013, it did not find a model to copy from other Texas law schools. Instead, it looked for guidance from TexasBar CLE, the State Bar of Texas’ CLE provider.

The topics of professional development seminars fit into six broad categories. Law practice seminars discuss things like law office management and organization; career-building seminars tackle topics like job searching and networking; practical skills seminars delve into details about lawyers’ work; professional formation seminars communicate the values of a lawyer and leadership; professionalism and ethics seminars explain the ethical considerations of lawyering; and wellness seminars talk about mental and physical health hazards of the profession. Baylor Law breaks up its school year into quarters. Administrators aim to offer 10 to 12 seminars each quarter, which breaks down to about one per week. Seminars attract anywhere from 25 to 100 students, and average attendance is 50 students per seminar.

Angela Cruseturner, Baylor Law’s assistant dean of career development, said that the school’s rigorous curriculum keeps students plenty busy, and administrators knew it would be tough for them to find time to attend professional development seminars. If the program were voluntary, students might not do it. That’s why the school made it mandatory.

“When you add something to students when they already are so busy, you worry how they are going to respond. The funny thing is: We do evaluations after each seminar,” Cruseturner said. “The majority of our programs, our students are providing great feedback and really enjoying.”

The program runs on an annual budget of $20,000 maximum—but Cruseturner said she and her frugal staff kept costs under $10,000 last year.

All of the work is handled by current employees. Most heavy lifting happens in the beginning of quarters. The school’s professional development committee, made up of law professors, meets to brainstorm seminar topics and suggest some of the speakers. Many speakers have presented in TexasBar CLE seminars previously, and the school also pulls heavily from its alumni who are active in private practice. Cruseturner’s department takes it from there. Career development employees handle the logistics of coordinating rooms, ordering lunches, monitoring attendance and evaluating programs. Those duties don’t interfere with employees’ work with students.

Wren said it’s been a learning process to operate the program these past four years. After a seminar, students complete a feedback card and the school uses the data to plan future seminars. The most popular seminars come back every 12 to 18 months, he said. Seminar topics have changed based on what students responded to the best.

“Depending on the program, we get all the way from rave reviews back to lukewarm or sometimes a critical review of a program. We listen to those and take them to heart,” Wren said. “The more practical the program, usually the higher the rating for it.”

To make it easier for students to meet their professional development requirement, the school offers many seminars during the lunch hour, and even buys students’ boxed lunches—normally sandwiches—which is the largest expense of the whole program. The speakers who present at seminars do it for free. Although the school offers to reimburse their travel expenses, Wren said that many turn it down.

“I can’t say enough about these speakers,” Wren said. “Leaders in the bar are incredibly generous in these sorts of situations.”

Notwithstanding free food, Wren said that some students do complain that they have trouble meeting their professional development hours on top of their law school classes.

“Honestly, we tell them, ‘That’s part of learning to be a professional. You are going to have CLE requirements in practice. You need to manage it. You need to stay ahead of it,’” Wren said.

Baylor Law organizes each school year into three quarters. It takes nine quarters—or three years—to graduate. Because moot court and practice court in the third year of law school take so much time, it’s good for students to log their professional development hours in other quarters. If they take three hours per quarter, that would meet the requirement. Because Baylor Law wants students to attend the seminars over time, not cram them—there’s a limit of five professional development hours per quarter.

Law student Lena Proft said it’s been easy to plan her hours. The career development office advertises upcoming seminars in weekly emails, and students can RSVP online. Once at the seminar, a student swipes her school ID to register her attendance and get credit.

Proft, who graduates this year, has attended professional development seminars about identifying and coping with depression and substance abuse, scoring internships and clerkships, dressing for success, performing well in interviews, and more.

“The last one I went to is, ‘lawyers, lobbyists and the legislature: how your law degree can make a difference,’” Proft said. “Since I am doing the administrative law concentration, that really interested me.”

She said she exchanged business cards with a speaker at the session, and plans to email him later this spring to meet in Austin, where she’ll be interning with Texas House Parliamentarian Chris Griesel. Proft said that in the heat of the legislative session, she hopes to make contacts and land a job after law school.

Texas Leader

Baylor Law is not the only Texas law school interested in developing students professionally. But its program is unique because of its CLE-style model, its mandatory nature and the fact that it spans all three years of law school.

The program at Texas A&M University School of Law comes close, with a mandatory first-year class in professionalism, followed by a voluntary program that covers leadership, communication, accounting, business skills and more, noted A&M Law Vice Dean Aric Short. He added that the school is debating whether to make the entire program mandatory.

The University of Houston Law Center requires 1L students to take a mandatory class in professionalism. Chris Roberts, spokesman of the University of Texas School of Law, wrote in an email that his school invests a lot in professionalism through its curriculum and extracurricular programs offered throughout a student’s time in law school. He wouldn’t comment about whether the program offers CLE-style seminars or whether it’s mandatory.

Both Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas and St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio aren’t offering professional development programs that compare to Baylor Law’s program. Other Texas law schools didn’t respond to requests for comment by deadline.

National Trend

On the national stage, professional development is an emerging trend in law schools.

Randall T. Shepard, who was chairman of the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, said the trend arose three to four years ago.

“I don’t know that anyone has put a definitive cause on the table, but one that has to have mattered is the really chastening trend of the availability of jobs for new lawyers,” he said. “People began to debate what schools could do to make their graduates as employable as possible. … There’s also a broader idea that it will make them more helpful to clients earlier in their practice than they otherwise would be.” Louis D. Bilionis, a legal academic who authored a paper about the professional development trend, said that law schools today want to focus on the whole development of a lawyer. In addition to teaching the law, how to analyze legal problems and think like a lawyer, they also want students to understand the attributes of a lawyer’s professional identity.

“Not just thinking and doing like [a lawyer], but having the values; having the commitment to constant development; having a commitment to excellence in the profession of service to others, and to community,” explained Bilionis, dean emeritus of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

Bilionis said he visited Baylor Law in November 2016 because he was impressed with its professional development program and he wanted to study it.

“I won’t make a claim everything they are doing is unique—in every school, there is a different twist to what they are doing,” he said. “Certainly, Baylor is among a handful of schools I would say that have stepped forward strongly.”

The CLE model of Baylor Law’s program was very intriguing, and Bilionis said he hasn’t seen anything like it.

Other schools broach professional development topics to law students during orientation or the first week of law school, and tackle additional issues periodically through the first year, Bilionis said. Some offer seminars similar to Baylor Law’s, but attendance is purely voluntary. Similar programming can also come from schools’ career services offices or leadership programs.

“What Baylor did is take chances and say, ‘We will provide a lot of these and we also are going to require that you do them. That’s on top of a very heavy set of expectations with the practice court. That stands out,” Bilionis said.