Pierce program takes new approach to law

A veteran trial lawyer who’s also a musician and composer of a rap song about rules of evidence might seem the perfect choice to lead an innovative program for educating future lawyers. At least John Garvey, director of the new Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program at Franklin Pierce Law Center, thinks it’s the perfect job for him.

“When this program came up, it seemed like a dream job for me,” said Garvey, the former chairman of the litigation department at Sulloway & Hollis in Concord. An adjunct professor at the law school for 20 years, Garvey saw the new position as an opportunity to combine the experience of his 27 years as a lawyer with what he calls his “passion for teaching and knowledge of real world. I had an opportunity to play some small role in the evolution of the profession, and that was very exciting to me.”

The program, a collaborative effort of the state Supreme Court, the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners, the New Hampshire Bar Association and the law school, is offered to honors students for the final two years of their three years of law school. Fifteen second-year students are enrolled now, with another 15 to be added next year.

The pilot program combines out-of-class mentoring and internships, mock trials and training in the business of running a law office with traditional classroom learning. Judges and lawyers from outside the school and members of the board of examiners will participate with faculty members in mentoring the students and evaluating their performance. Those who successfully complete the course will be licensed to practice law in New Hampshire without the two days of test-taking otherwise required of applicants to the bar.

The program, believed to be the first of its kind, has attracted national attention, Garvey said, as he was preparing a presentation on it for the annual convention of the American Bar Association. It also has been the subject of some misunderstanding, as he discovered as a participant on ABC’s “Nightline” program.

“The headline, the big caption they put across the screen was ‘No More Bar Exams’,” said Garvey, who describes the program as “a two-year bar exam” for students.

“They are choosing to be rigorously tested over and over again,” he said. “They are choosing to do more work during law school so they will be client-ready. That’s our goal, to make law students client-ready.”

Instrument of change

Even large law firms are hard-pressed these days to provide the kind of mentoring they have traditionally given to new lawyers, said Garvey. “I think most firms will tell you associates don’t pay for themselves for the first couple of years,” he said.

And clients have become increasingly unwilling to pay for on-the-job-training. “They don’t want to pay for an extra lawyer,” Garvey said. “They want the case managed with fewer people. Those economics have really changed in the last 20 years.”

One of the first things students in the program will take up is billing, as they learn to function as both plaintiff and defense attorneys.

“The plaintiff’s firm will worry about client intake and on what basis compensation will be made. Is it a contingency fee, or is the client going to pay by the hour? The defense is going to get a letter of retention from a major corporation that will have billing guidelines.”

Billing is but one of the practical aspects of running a law office that most law students seldom think about, Garvey said.

“You can take a course on insurance or the business of practicing law or the mechanics of setting up a group practice,” said Garvey. “The difference is this program is focused on integrating all of those things as a priority, not as an elective.”

It may even lead to permanent changes in law school education, said John Hutson, dean and president of Pierce Law.

“We might find the school itself changes as a result of all this,” said Hutson. “I think it could very well happen that all of our students who intend to practice in New Hampshire will want to take this course. Even students who know for sure they’re going to California or New York to practice might want to be in this program, because it’s a better, more practical education.”

Words and music

Over the years, Garvey has become known at Pierce Law for unconventional teaching methods, for example using song lyrics and movie scenes to illustrate the lessons of the law books. He has used a courtroom scene from “My Cousin Vinnie” to teach a point about cross-examination and a children’s poem about a gingham dog and a calico cat to illustrate the advantages of mediation over litigation. (The stuffed animals in the poem devour each other overnight — as litigants often do, said Garvey.) And he has put rules of evidence into rhymed couplets with a “rap” beat to help students remember rules governing hearsay:

“For business records try 803 (6),
It’s hearsay, but this is the fix
If a public record is what you’ve got,
Then 803 (8) will hit the spot.”

“I’m a musician, I’ve written songs for years,” said Garvey, who has produced a CD of some of his country music compositions. “Evidence Rap” was a song that “started bouncing around inside my head” as he was finishing up an evidence course. “(Students) told me it was an excellent summary and they wished they’d had it at the beginning of the course,” he said.

Applicants for the director’s job included “some of the top lawyers from around the state,” Hutson said. Garvey was chosen for “his experience, his personality, a driving desire to teach. He cares a lot about the students and the process of teaching and he looks at innovative ways to do that. The Webster Scholar thing certainly requires that sort of imagination.”

A native of Emporia, Kan., Garvey is a graduate of Harvard and of the Suffolk University Law School in Massachusetts. As a Navy lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General corps, he defended the first military doctor ever prosecuted over the death of a patient. The doctor, a Navy commander, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and dereliction of duty, though Garvey was able to get the manslaughter charge was overturned on appeal.

“It was my first exposure as a trial lawyer,” he said, recalling the national publicity the case received. “I learned that with an awful lot of things going on, you have to stay focused.”

He requested and received a closed proceeding for the trial. “You see all the high-publicity cases, with lawyers making speeches on the courthouse steps,” he said, noting the added publicity is not always in the client’s interest. “That’s another lesson, that it’s always about the client.”

For the next few years at least, it will be all about the students for Garvey, as he puts his practice as a trial lawyer on hold. He will continue to do some mediation work, however, as he finds that less demanding and emotionally draining than trials. And he believes it is often better for the client.

“I think it gives people more control over their destiny,” he says. “When you put your future in the hands of 12 jurors, you’ve let go of control. When you settle through a series of negotiations, you may not get everything you want, but at least you know what you are getting.”

And if gingham dogs and calico cats, movie scenes and rap songs can help students better learn the law and serve their future clients, Garvey is ready to bring those and whatever other teaching methods he has learned to the Webster Scholar program.

“The reputation of this law school as always being innovative is working in our favor,” he said. “The idea of trying something else that hasn’t been tried before is not unusual here.”

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