Second-year law student Nathan Maurer speaks with Assistant Professor of Law Zoe E. Niesel (left) and alumna Elizabeth O’Connell Perez (right). Credit: Robin Jerstad for St. Mary's School of Law

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Boosting scores on law school tests. Improving bar exam results. Gaining skills to last a career. Helping students achieve academic excellence and serve justice.

The aspirations of the new Law Success Program at the St. Mary’s University School of Law are substantial.

The team developing the program said it will take an approach that is unique among American law schools – a multifaceted program that will continue to roll out in future years – to achieve those lofty objectives.

“Students are definitely coming into law school with the belief that they can do well,” said Zoe E. Niesel, assistant professor of law and director of the St. Mary’s Law Success Program. “But what we need to do is show them the behaviors that will help reinforce that belief. The belief alone is not enough.”

The program’s architect, Assistant Dean Mike Barry, believes that the instruction must reflect the University’s Catholic and Marianist principles, preparing students to adapt and change as they pursue justice and excellence in their careers.

“That really requires that we help the student see the law not just as a job, but a calling,” Barry said.

Creating a top-class program

Barry and School of Law Dean Stephen M. Sheppard have found the investment in the program by St. Mary’s and its alumni to be unmatched by other law schools in size and scope.

While some schools are hiring one person, St. Mary’s Law has hired 10 full-time Law Success instructors over the past two years. The number of courses and activities added under the Law Success Program umbrella also sets the effort apart from the competition, Barry said. To boost student understanding and skill level at a rapid rate, the school added three mandatory courses last year.

Barry also points to the program’s rigor and use of data as creating a uniquely individualized program.

“I haven’t seen many doing the combination of assessments that we’re doing, plus the data analysis that we share with the student,” he said.

The concept stands apart from competitors in its outlook, said Sheppard, who credits a 2015 grant from the AccessLex Institute with helping the school develop portions of the curriculum.

“The Law Success Program overshadows programs in many law schools that are remedial in their philosophy with a program that is supportive, forward-looking, and intended to serve every student, no matter how strong or how prepared,” Sheppard said. “It reaches not just some small portion of the class, but the whole class.”

Unveiling a multiyear approach

The program is in the second year of its three-year launch, with additional courses, workshops, and assessment programs beginning next year.

First, before starting law school classes, incoming J.D. students attend a mandatory orientation that includes a battery of assessments measuring their skill levels in areas such as analysis, critical thinking, and legal writing. Then, in a first-semester course called Introduction to Legal Methods, Law Success instructors work with students divided into cohorts to improve those skills. Instructors use data both from the cohort and from the individual student to guide their efforts.

During their second semester, students continue this targeted learning in a class called Advanced Legal Methods, which also introduces components of the practice of law, such as approaches to meeting with clients and senior attorneys, professionalism, and ethics.

In their second year of law school, students enter a course called Experiential Legal Analysis to introduce them to practicing before the trial court and begin preparing them for the bar exam.

Year Three includes a for-credit bar prep course that leads into an extracurricular program, which focuses on Texas law, practicing the components of the bar exam and individualized feedback on practice essays.

Beyond the nuts and bolts, Law Success instructors aim to model a level of professionalism and a sense of calling in the classroom that benefits the school’s culture, Barry said.

“We’re here for each step of the way,” said Law Success Instructor Afton Cavanaugh, who recalled helping a student overcome her test anxieties and offering skills building that assisted her in netting an internship and an invitation to write for the law journals.

Cavanaugh said he “continues to meet with students individually even after graduation because, as a school, we care enough about them getting the support that they need at one of the most challenging times in law school, even though they think they’re done. I’m reaffirming that they’re part of this community.”

Finding results in law classes and beyond

Second-year law student Nathan Maurer, who took Introduction to Legal Methods from Niesel, said he entered his first year of law school with little clue about the true meaning of legal analysis. But Niesel showed him how to make fact-based arguments right away, starting with providing feedback on students’ arguments for a practice contract law problem, Maurer said.

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“I always kept in mind, when I was taking my finals, applying all the facts of the law,” Maurer said. “That’s what helped me get really good grades.”

He took those skills a step forward during an internship with a Tarrant County probate judge over the summer, during which he had to call on his background in legal analysis to write a memo on management trusts.

“If I hadn’t taken that class, I probably wouldn’t have known what to analyze,” Maurer said. “It definitely carries over to the real world.”

Maurer’s experience reflects the aims of the program at large, which Niesel describes as meeting “each student where they are.”

“That is at the heart of Law Success,” Niesel said. “We recognize and embrace that different people have different areas of strength coming into law school. No one comes in a fully formed attorney. Meeting them where they are as they start and as they continue to impress is a huge goal of ours and a critical part of the mission.”

Jennifer R. Lloyd

Jennifer R. Lloyd

Jennifer R. Lloyd is director of university communications for St. Mary’s University, which is home to the only law school in the San Antonio area. She is a former journalist with extensive experience...