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Given the current economic climate, simply holding a law degree may not be enough to guarantee success in an increasingly competitive legal field.

With this in mind, Penn Law’s Center on Professionalism has introduced new programming this fall aimed at assisting first-year students in cultivating professional skills outside the classroom.

Spearheaded by Vice Dean for Administrative Services Jo-Ann Verrier alongside associate deans Paul George and Heather Frattone, the initiative involves cohort collaboration, intensive engagement in classes and clinics and pro bono fieldwork. Throughout their law school careers, students will remain in their cohorts.

The center has also introduced a new intranet website which enables students to track progress by building a portfolio of documents relevant to their professional development.

“If you’re a graduate of Penn Law or one of our peer law schools, brilliance is assumed,” said Penn Law spokesman Mark Eyerly. “We started to think about things we could do to complement the world-class education students receive so they can develop professional skills and hit the ground running from day one.”

Under this program, all 250 first-years will join cohorts comprised of no more than 15 students each. Each student will attend all classes, as well as receive legal writing and research training in their cohort for all three years in school.

In addition, they will participate in other programs offered at the center designed to enhance their professional skills in five primary areas: communications, management, problem solving, self-development and strategic planning.

Likening the program to the “white coat ceremony” for first-year medical students, Eyerly said one of its goals is to convey to students that they have effectively become professionals the minute they start at law school.

“Our main goal is to repackage the work we’re already doing with students to make it clear that they’re developing [professional skills],” Verrier said.

Prior to this initiative, law students acquired professional skills by enrolling in clinical courses — which require them to represent real-world clients — and fulfilling a graduation requirement mandating 70 hours of pro bono work. Students are remain required to complete both of these.

While students have also developed professional skills through research projects and oral presentations as part of routine coursework, the center’s new programming marks the beginning of a deliberate approach to facilitating the development of individual strengths.

Law faculty are assessing how the existing curriculum will help students develop a full range of professional skills, Verrier said.

“Before this year, there were still plenty of opportunities within the Law School for students to develop job-related professional skills,” Eyerly said. “What this does is make the effort a little more intense.”

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