Faculty Connections Opens Doors For Students

When entering the University of St. Thomas School of Law, it is not always easy to tell who is a faculty or staff member and who is a student. Occasionally a professor will be the one in a Packers’ jersey and sandals, and often a student will be the one in a suit preparing foran…

When entering the University of St. Thomas School of Law, it is not always easy to tell who is a faculty or staff member and who is a student. Occasionally a professor will be the one in a Packers’ jersey and sandals, and often a student will be the one in a suit preparing foran argument in the moot courtroom. Also, there are virtually no spaces that are students-only or faculty-only.

The University of St. Thomas School of Law building was designed to encourage interaction among students, faculty and staff. The proximity of faculty offices and student spaces makes it impossible for a faculty member to get a cup of coffee without engaging students, and makes it equally impossible for a student to work on a paper or study without help being only a few feet away in the form of a professor, librarian or classmate. It is clear thatconnections outside the classroom are the norm at the School of Law and have sparked interesting collaborations inside and outside the walls of the building.

According to Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Rob Vischer, one of the unique things about the School of Law is that these relationships are the expectation, rather than the exception. “We take relationships seriously both inside and outside the classroom. The relationship that faculty members have with students has a profound impact on what type of lawyers students will become,” he said.

“At the School of Law, students are taught, shaped and challenged by professors who are leading experts in their fields, who not only teach doctrine and skills, but also take students deeper, who push students to understand the origins, purposes, and shortcomings of law in a given area, and help them carve out paths of possible societal engagement and reform,” Vischer said. “Additionally, our students are just really interesting and fun people to be around.”

Building strong faculty and student relationships is one way that helps students develop the practical skills and emotional intelligence lawyers need to engage and nurture all relationships. Through these collaborations, students gain real-world experience.

Commutation Investigation Sends Student to Texas

Nancy Ly never viewed herself as a potential criminal attorney, let alone one advocating against injustice, but working with her Sentencing Law professor Mark Osler changed her vision.

She remembers vividly the day in class when Osler recounted a memory rom his days as a prosecutor. He described the day as one of the coldest in Michigan. He was in court and the judge decided to let the defendant go on his own recognizance. In closing, the judge asked the defendant if he had a coat and the defendant answered “no.” So the judge went into chambers, brought out his own coat and gave it to the defendant.

“I think about that story at least once a week to remind myself that we are all human and deserve mercy and kindness,” Ly commented. “It doesn’t matter if you are a judge or an inmate, we all make mistakes and try to learn from them. Trying to help individuals through the School of Law’s new commutation clinic is one way that I try to pay it forward because I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to be in professional school.”

Ly’s path to the School of Law included plenty of interesting places. She went from her home state of California to Michigan for law school before transferring to the University of St. Thomas. Her education at the University of St. Thomas and connection with Osler sent her to another interesting place, a prison in Texas.

Osler works on several cases a year as they wind their way through the justice system. He is a national expert on sentencing law with a deep interest and expertise in sentencing, especially capital punishment. As part of his class, Ly learned about commutations and was able to work with Osler on a federal commutation petition. Eager to learn more, she did not hesitate when Osler asked her to aid in another potential commutation petition. The casewas not federal, but rather in the state court system in Texas.

Commutation petitions are unique in the legal system, according to Osler: “Commutations are fascinating because they are so unencumbered by the law. It is an unchecked power of the executive.” In Texas, the petition for commutation goes to the governor to approve. There is a gatekeeper function served by the Board of Pardon and Parole. If a commutation is granted, the prisoner is released for time served.

Osler gave Ly the opportunity to investigate the case of Milton Cosby who received a 20-year sentence for threatening a police officer (see above). The petition gave Ly the chance to be involved from the beginning. She led interviews and worked actively in the investigation process. Cosby’s crime normally holds a two- to 10-year sentence. The sentencing discrepancy caught Osler’s attention after being contacted by Cosby’s son, Quan Cosby, a current wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts. After initial research, Osler found the retaliation sentence was increased with an enhancement. An enhancement can be attached to prolong a typical sentence in some cases.

Ly traveled to Waco, Texas, and began the commutation investigation. She met with Cosby, the public defender who originally defended Milton in an unrelated case and the district attorney who would receive the commutation petition. Interviewing Cosby was Ly’s first time in a prison and she went in with some trepidation, not only about the situation, butabout the client. She didn’t know what to expect, but what she found was a man who she feels truly has changed. She noted that some opinions of Cosby were based on things that happened more than 10 years prior.

Ly spent four hours at the prison where Cosby is being held and talked to him about his life, from his earliest memories to life in prison. “Professor Osler stresses the point that in a commutation you want to tell the inmate’s story,” Ly explained, noting that she was trying to determine not just what happened in the crime but to put together an entire picture of the man to see if rehabilitation had occurred.

“This experience really changed me; I can’t approach things in the same way anymore.” Ly noted that after the interview with Cosby she had difficulty eating lunch because she felt guilty about the freedoms that she enjoyed in contrast with Cosby, who has been incarcerated for the past 11 years. “I felt grateful that he gave me a chance to tell his story,” she said.

Since returning from Texas, Ly has been working on the case with other members of the Federal Commutation Clinic at the School of Law. In order to commute a sentence in Texas, the team obtained certified court documents, including the indictment, judgment, sentence and arrest reports. The group has decided, based on its investigation, that a commutation is appropriate and they are working to get letters of support.

Ly is sure that this experience will stay with her and she wants to be involved in commutation cases in her career. In addition to ensuring that a just sentence is provided, she is gaining valuable legal experience.

Osler emphasized, “St. Thomas law students are capable of such high-level work in many areas.” Ly’s experience provides an inspiring example of the opportunities available to students to make a difference both legally and socially.

The Opportunity to Research Piracy

Faculty connections to interesting cases and interesting places often open doors for students. Ben Kinney, 3L, considered law schools in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, but was drawn specifically to the University of St. Thomas School of Law. His father was skeptical of his son attending a law school that was still relatively young. This concern was alleviatedafter attending a class led by professor Robert Delahunty. Delahunty’s ability to ask questions that often provoke dynamic classroom discussions paired with his engaging lecture style impressed both Kinney and his father. After their visit, his father agreed with Kinney’s decision to attend the University of St. Thomas, after being won over both by the lecture and the school’s consistently high rankings from Princeton Review.

Delahunty brings a wealth of personal and professional experiences to the classroom. Before he enrolled at Harvard Law School, Delahunty was already an established scholar, holding research and teaching positions at Oriel College, Oxford University, and a tenured teaching position at the University of Durham in the north of England. Delahunty returned toHarvard Law School in 1980 from which he graduated cum laude in 1983. After law school, Delahunty worked in large firm practice, for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and began working in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Departmentin 1989. He spent most of his legal career before joining the UST faculty, however, at the Office of Legal Counsel, where he was made Special Counsel and a member of the SeniorExecutive Service in 1992.

Kinney’s exposure to the practice of law began while watching his father serve as a circuit court judge. He also enjoyed a very successful mock-trial program throughout his schooling in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. At the time, the last thing he wanted to become was a lawyer. That all changed after a trip to the courtroom to watch his father preside over a case. He was intrigued and peppered his father with questions. During one of these conversations,he knew his professional path would include law school.

After choosing the University of St. Thomas, Kinney took Constitutional Law with Delahunty. One day after concluding his course lecture, Delahunty shared that a firm in Chicago, Baker & McKenzie, was looking for students to help research piracy. Kinney found the opportunityintriguing, talked with Delahunty for more information and decided to apply. Shortly thereafter, he was accepted to the program. He knew the work entailed researching piracy, but expected the project to be primarily academic. His excitement grew when he learned the product created might aid in creation of a world court.

Kinney stated he enjoyed working with the firm and was able to develop many legal and practical skills. This opportunity allowed him to develop his time-management skills and the ability to work in a group setting to fulfill a project within an assigned timeline. Of course, the pressures of meeting a deadline were kept light when emails began with the word, “Ahoy!”

As he worked for the firm, Kinney met with Delahunty throughout the summer. At one point, Delahunty even sat in on a few of the conference calls with the firm. At the end of the summer Kinney and Delahunty met to discuss the final legal memo.

Kinney credits Delahunty for the opportunity to work with Baker & McKenzie on this project because Delahunty forwarded Kinney’s résumé to the firm with a letter of recommendation.

The Importance of Research Assistants

Academic and intellectual exploration is at the heart of the law school experience, and professor Neil Hamilton fully engages his student research assistants in pursuing an ambitious scholarly agenda. Many facultyand staff members employ research assistants during their second and third years in law school. In the role of research assistants, students have copublished law review articles, worked on important cases as high as the U.S. Supreme Court and contributed in other ways to the profession.

Hamilton stays in touch with more than 40 research assistants he has worked with at the School of Law. Together, they have produced more than 20 articles for Minnesota Lawyer magazine, developed curricula and worked on other projects. In giving students assignments that require a lot of responsibility, Hamilton said that he is modeling what it is like to take work from senior lawyers. He meets weekly with the students, engaging them in dialogue not only on the substantive legal issues they are researching, but also addressing subjects like timelines and helping them work through the ambiguity that comes with working for more senior professionals.

“I engage them as junior colleagues,” Hamilton commented. “There is no question that they become friends.”

Mark Klos ’04 was Hamilton’s research assistant when Senior Fellow Thomas Holloran and Hamilton were developing the Ethical Leadership in Practice course. Klos had the opportunity to work with these two leaders in the field of ethical leadership on a daily basis. He did research on subjects such as mission statements and was part of a discussion about what the curriculum would entail. When the course was launched, Klos took part in nightly debriefings about what worked in the course, and he helped shape its foundation.

“The fact that I was able to interact with Tom and Neil and they allowed me to give input about what I was seeing in the literature, and asked me what I thought was interesting, was a very unique place to be as a law student. I wouldn’t have had a chance to do that at a lot of other law schools,” Klos said.

He explained that spending this time looking at the economics and realities of law-firm practice gave him a unique perspective coming out of law school. “The other unique opportunity was meeting successful practitioners.” Klos appreciated learning from experts before he entered his own practice.

More than 10 years later, Klos’ legacy at the School of Law includes his contributions to that course and as a member of the Board of Governors. Klos is a member of Maslon, Edelman, Borman and Brand, L.L.P.’s Business and Securities Group and Financial Services Group.

The Unique Role of Faculty

Since becoming associate dean last summer, Vischer has thought a lot about the unique role of faculty and the relationship that faculty have with students. He notes that it is particularly gratifying to work with faculty who take this relationship seriously, and who give students the chance to contribute to the scholarly community that the School of Law has built which shapes the profession they will soon join.

Beyond the above examples, he cited several other faculty members who bridge scholarly work with student learning effectively. Vischer noted, “At the School of Law you can study constitutional law with professor Tom Berg, one of the nation’s leading authorities on religious liberty who is helping state legislatures considering same-sex marriage laws to preserve freedom for religious institutions. Or, if you are interested in government litigation, you can study the topic with professor Greg Sisk, who literally wrote the book on the subject. Or you can study mediation and alternative dispute resolution with professorMariana Hernandez-Crespo, who is leading efforts to develop consensusbuilding mechanisms for legal disputes across Latin America. The opportunities are there for students and faculty to work together to continue to shape this dynamic profession.”

Read more from St. Thomas Lawyer

Next in St. Thomas Lawyer