Over the past seven years, Sean G. Wieber has spent three to five hours a day writing.
As a litigation associate at Winston & Strawn LLP, Wieber drafts court documents and writes client deliverables. He e-mails colleagues, clients and consultants. He edits his teammates’ documents. He spends copious hours researching.
During his first year at the firm, he wrote five hours a day. That total is lower now that he spends more time in meetings or in court, but he still writes three to four hours a day.
His experience is typical. What isn’t typical is the writing instruction he received at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.
“Some of the top tier schools do (writing) as a pass-fail in a quarter or a semester,” Wieber said. “I don’t think that adequately prepares today’s lawyers at big law firms charging the rates that we charge.”
Launched in 1978, IIT Chicago-Kent’s research and writing program was the first in the U.S. to require three years of writing.
And though it was ranked outside the top 10 in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings — assessments that have become guideposts for many prospective students — its program requires more semesters than all but three schools in the top 10.
“What they don’t tell you — law schools in general — is how much of your life is going to be spent writing as a lawyer,” Wieber said, who was one of several IIT Chicago-Kent alumni who said the school allowed them to “hit the ground running” in a first job.
“I had done three years of researching and writing before I arrived,” Wieber said. “That’s something I think that separates Kent from its competitors and some of the more prestigious law schools.”
A home away from home
Along with “hit the ground running,” another regular refrain of IIT Chicago-Kent alumni was “it just felt right.”
That phrase came up repeatedly when students and graduates discussed choosing IIT Chicago-Kent.
Some first felt that way when they visited during their selection process. Wieber described the school’s vibe as “a nice sense of comfort and compatibility.”
More tangible descriptions come when students compare the school to comparable schools.
After graduating from Purdue University in 2006 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Joseph F. Janas worked at Motorola for three years before going to law school. He chose IIT Chicago-Kent in part because of its professional atmosphere.
“For me, having worked for a while, it seemed like a better fit,” he said.
Dean Harold J. Krent plays a big role in helping the school feel both homey and professional.
“He’s somehow impressive and accessible at the same time,” said second-year student Matthew McElwee. “He’s got the kind of presence where you don’t feel at all intimidated asking a question, but the moment he starts speaking about it, you are quiet and listen.”
Krent is known on campus for his personal touch. When 2014 graduate Jeremy Abrams won a contest for a small business he runs, he received a congratulatory e-mail from Krent despite not having had many previous interactions with him.
And when second-year student Katie DeBoer finished third in her class after her first year, Krent invited her to his office for a 20-minute discussion about her plans for the future.
“He reached out to me to make sure that I was happy at Kent and didn’t want to transfer,” said DeBoer, who was weighing her options until she met with the dean.
“I left and reassured him that I didn’t want to (leave). I also left with the feeling that the dean of the law school cares if I leave or stay, which is a reassuring feeling to have.”
A compass for the job search
The collegial atmosphere continues in the school’s alumni network, which is utilized to help students find both employment and a support system.
That support begins each spring with Alumni/Student ConneKtions (ASCK) Week, which brings alumni to campus for a week of informational interviews, mock interviews, networking and job shadowing. Alumni also review student resumes and give feedback and advice.
Janas found his current job at Foley & Lardner LLP when a fellow 2012 graduate recommended him for the position. Julia R. Lissner, now of Akerman LLP, got her first job at Chapman, Spingola LLP because partner Peter M. Spingola was also an IIT Chicago-Kent graduate.
“There is a large network of people here, which helps when you’re interviewing,” Lissner said. “People understand what kind of great legal writing experience you’ve gotten (and) what kind of great moot court experience you’ve gotten. There’s a certain level of relatability.”
That hometown connection played a role in DeBoer’s decision to come too.
“While it’s not a top-tier school, I think it’s the best, other than Chicago and Northwestern, that you’re going to get in this city,” DeBoer said. “A lot of lawyers really respect it.”
Along with the alumni network’s role in student employment, students praise the career services office.
“You can meet one-on-one with your adviser as much as you like,” McElwee said. “They’ll proof your resume and cover letters. They’ll take notes on your particular interests and then send you a list of potential firms that they can put you in contact with. I couldn’t ask for more from the career services office here.”
Those personalized efforts are crucial to the school’s success in helping students find jobs. This summer, Krent led a group whose goal was to prepare students for “non-traditional legal jobs” in fields such as compliance, banking, project management and technology.
He also praised two new programs launching this year.
The Praxis Program gives students a certificate for completing 24 credit hours within a framework of 25 experiential learning courses, and the 1L Your Way program allows first-year students to take electives or clinics usually reserved for the second and third years.
“Those are two things we’re starting this year that I think will have a long-term impact on employment prospects,” Krent said.
Such prospects for graduates are already competitive in Illinois. In 2013, IIT Chicago-Kent’s employment rate based on data collected by the American Bar Association was 81.56 percent, a total near its two biggest competitor schools, Loyola (84.97 percent) and DePaul (79.23).
But as many point out, employment stats are like holograms — they look different depending on perspective. Janas, for instance, didn’t look at them at all.
“I did talk to a few students in intellectual property, specifically, at Kent to get an idea of employment prospects,” he said.
“The tough part about general employment numbers is that it’s not broken down by specialty, so I didn’t feel that the ABA employment numbers were super relevant to my situation.”
Practice makes perfect
While the ABA’s employment stats were not relevant to Janas, the school’s intellectual property program was.
“Chicago-Kent had the best IP program in the Midwest,” said Janas, who wanted to attend school in Chicago. “Northwestern is a fantastic school, but they didn’t have the focus on IP that Kent had.”
Janas rated DePaul as the second best IP program in the region, giving IIT Chicago-Kent the nod due to its professors, student body and the Intellectual Property Law Society, which immerses participants in Chicago’s IP community.
The program is among the practice areas that attracts students. The trial advocacy program does too.
Lissner traveled to UCLA and Vanderbilt University to compete with the moot court honors society, while this summer DeBoer was one of nine people from the school who spent two weeks competing in Scotland.
Rachel A. Remke of Schiff, Hardin LLP — another 2012 graduate — called her moot court experience “probably one of the most important things I did in law school.”
The team competed in both civil and criminal cases, including a product-liability case and a double-murder trial.
“That gave me a ton of substantive trial experience and taught me to think on my feet,” Remke said.
Another aspect of the school’s emphasis on practical skills is its fee-generating clinic, the only one of its kind in the state.
Clinical director Gary S. Laser instituted the model in 1979, four years into his tenure at the school. He’d previously taught at Northwestern, where he established its legal clinic in 1968.
After a stint at Boston College Law School, Laser came to IIT Chicago-Kent with a new perspective on clinical education.
Rather than strictly follow the social mission of exposing students to the legal plight of the poor, Laser believed clinical education should be used to introduce students to the realities of practice.
“It therefore occurred to me that the best thing to do was to find a way to increase the number of in-house clinical professors that a law school could afford to have on its payroll,” Laser said.
His solution was a clinic funded by clients — like a regular law practice — rather than by the school or grants.
Today, nine of the school’s 12 clinical professors — including Laser — use the fee system. Clinics operating under that model handle matters involving criminal charges, employment disputes, civil litigation, taxes, probate issues, health and disability discrimination and family law.
Last year, the clinic educated 200 students, most of whom were in the fee model. The fee-generating clinics brought in $2.1 million in client fees last year to go along with the $1.4 million the law school provides for clinical education.
That money gives students a greater “level of accountability,” Lissner said.
“It wasn’t doing an assignment just for the sake of doing an assignment,” she said. “I think because it was fee-generating, you felt a kind of urgency to get things done.”
The fee-generating model also trains students for real-world practice by creating a comparable power structure. The professors are partners, and they hire younger lawyers to act as senior associates.
“In the fee model, our lawyers have the same concerns that lawyers in private practice have, which means that (students) understand how lawyers have to make judgments about what kinds of cases they take based on their economic value,” Laser said.
That means learning how to determine what fees to charge, what sort of fee structure to use and what to do when clients don’t pay.
“Students have to understand all of that,” he said.
That focus on job preparation is similar to the school’s five-semester writing program, which Lissner said taught her about organization and structure.
“Other schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago don’t put the same emphasis on writing as Chicago-Kent,” Lissner said. “Even though those students may have gotten in with higher LSAT scores, they’re not going to know how to write as strongly when they get out.
“And once you get into a law firm, there is no one to teach you how to write. You’re expected to know.”
That expectation is the impetus for the marketplace’s emphasis on creating practice-ready lawyers, and though the term may overstate a graduate’s abilities, the training offered by IIT Chicago-Kent is designed to create what Wieber calls a “seamless transition” from law school to law practice.
“There are perennial top 10 schools, which Chicago-Kent is not,” Wieber said. “And I didn’t feel one iota behind intellectually, from a preparation standpoint, having gone to Chicago-Kent.”