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Teaching about the importance of advocacy through hands-on learning

by Jessica Rotter,

CRB Class

Willamette Law has been on the cutting-edge of experiential learning for a number of years. Today, Willamette Law professors are continuing to think innovatively about how to incorporate experiential learning in the classroom both in the form of existing classes and wholly new simulation-based courses. Professor Sheri Buske, for instance, knew that she wanted to find a way to introduce experiential learning into her courses as she understood firsthand the impact it could have on students’ ability to hit the ground running after graduation.

As she settled into her role at Willamette Law in 2021, inspiration struck as she considered how to expand her own skills and get involved in the local community. With that, she became a certified member of the Citizens Review Board (CRB), a program in the court system that reviews the cases of children in foster care. The informative and well-organized training prompted Buske to consider how she might incorporate the same concepts and skills into her curriculum. 

At the same time, Kristina Elliott, CRB Trainer and Field Manager, noticed the shortage of attorneys who were capable of taking on child dependency and welfare cases in Oregon. Families were going long periods of time unrepresented because of the shortage of qualified attorneys. Elliott considered how she might work with law students, in her capacity, to inspire them to consider this type of law. 

From there, Buske and Elliott developed a course curriculum where students could opt to attach the CRB training and certification process onto Buske’s Child Abuse and Neglect course. Students that added the CRB component would attend both the weekly lectures and the sessions required for CRB certification. The CRB component includes two Saturday training sessions, one that includes a mock CRB review, a court and CRB observation, a variety of online homework modules, and a background check.

Adding this experiential learning component to her course was a dream come true for Buske. “The students are up on their feet for most of the class doing actual trial advocacy, and developing the skills this type of law requires,” she shares. 

This was of particular interest to Buske as she recalls first going into legal practice and being handed a large stack of documents without any background knowledge on what everything meant. There was a significant amount of paperwork that were not, strictly speaking,  legal documents but were nevertheless still vital to the case. She quickly realized that she would need to understand all of these extra components about the families before even diving into the legal issues. 

“For many families, the problem isn’t a black and white legal issue, there are other dynamics that led to the legal issue and it’s important to understand that first and foremost. Something in the family isn’t working, that is what resulted in a legal response,” Buske says. 

It is important for Buske that her students can leave her class understanding the law and equally important for her to teach her students how to interact with clients, how to conceptualize complicated issues and dynamics, and to understand the “social work” component in each case. From her experience, students graduate and go into practice only to quickly discover that this specific area of the law requires particular skills that aren’t taught in the classroom. 

“These skills take lawyers years to develop. There is no way to overstate the importance of legal advocacy and understanding complex family systems when lawyers approach a juvenile dependency case,” Elliot says. 

Elliott was inspired to become a lawyer after serving on the CRB and seeing the role of advocacy in developing real solutions for complex legal issues. Including law students in the CRB can go a long way in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our state, Elliott states. Adding the CRB certification to the course encourages students to consider the nonlegal side of practicing law, but it is also a benefit to the state as more qualified, compassionate, and well-rounded lawyers will be admitted to the bar. 

“We are lucky, at the CRB, that we get the opportunity to have law students involved because they are coming to this with eagerness, compassion, and a long career ahead of them. These are the people that will make real change in our state and in the child welfare system in particular,” Elliott says. 

Students put theory into practice

Sarah Levin JD’23 took this course with a particular interest in learning more about the difference between juvenile dependency court and the traditional civil/criminal court system. The CRB component allowed her to delve even more into the role of advocacy in law and how citizens can get involved in making a large impact on the community. 

“We aren’t just sitting in a classroom hearing black letter law; we get to truly consider the individual people involved in a system,” Levin shares. In addition, she has learned from the CRB lawyers that this work is hard, but it is some of the most rewarding and critical work for our community. Learning from both Buske and Elliott has encouraged Levin to be a creative thinker when it comes to the law. 

“It’s looking at the totality of circumstances, differing viewpoints, and other parties involved,” Levin says. 

This course and the CRB portion was a perfect fit for Jana Baker JD’24 as she wanted to specifically take an experiential learning course. “I am a hands-on learner and being able to practice and roleplay rather than sit in a lecture helps me to learn quicker,” she says. 

The biggest thing that Baker has taken away from being immersed in the concepts and components of juvenile dependency work is, quite simply, the importance of it. She resonated most with learning the large scale process and how things are handled, and specifically the elements of a dependency case that one may not realize are important right away. “You may go into a case thinking it is just how to place a child for safety purposes, but there are a significant number of other considerations that can carry equal weight,” Baker says. 

Both Levin and Baker intend to participate on the CRB after they are certified. They see how transferable the skills they have learned in the class are to other areas of the law and other courses they are taking. 

“I feel more prepared as an attorney, regardless of what area of law I end up practicing in, because I understand how the processes work and how to be more investigative while also considering the client first,” Baker says. 

Buske hopes to continue offering the CRB training and certification in addition to her Child Abuse & Neglect course in the future. “Students are beginning to really see themselves as advocates, not just lawyers. Advocates are what these clients really need,” Buske shares. 

She is grateful that the CRB and Elliott agreed to participate, and that Willamette Law Dean Brian Gallini believed in her vision for the course. “The stars aligned and I believe our students, community, and the legal profession in Oregon are better for it,” she says.

About Willamette University College of Law

Willamette University College of Law was the first law school to open in the Pacific Northwest. Building on deep historic roots, we focus with pride on educating the next generation of problem-solving lawyers and leaders. Our location in Salem, Oregon, directly across the street from the Oregon State Capitol and Supreme Court, cannot be matched in the region. Our thought-leading scholars advance and promote our shared responsibility to make a difference in society, placing justice, fairness, and equality at the heart of everything we do.

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