Students Get Experience, Aid Community with DU’s Probate Practicum
by Lauren Lockard
In November 2010, with the assistance of Professors Lucy Marsh and Byron Hammond, I began to reach out to the administration and students at DU and the surrounding community to gauge interest and find out what steps needed to be taken to create an opportunity that would offer practical experience in this area. What would take shape is the Probate Practicum.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the faculty and administration at DU, as well as Carl Glatstein and Leia Ursery, almost everything was in place a mere two months after an initial meeting with Dean Martin Katz, then Probate Judge C. Jean Stewart, Magistrate Ruben Hernandez, Beth Tomerlin of the Denver Probate Court, practicing attorneys, and students.
However, there was still a slight bump in the road: access to electronic court filing for the class through LexisNexis. Fortunately, with the assistance of Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs and many others, separate LexisNexis access was provided for practicum use. With no further roadblocks, the practicum launched in the fall 2011 semester.
During the inaugural semester, students were involved in probate protective proceedings at the Denver Probate Court and the district courts in Adams and Arapahoe counties, as well as out-of-class experience with these courts and those in El Paso County.
Practicum students are assigned a client at the beginning of the semester. So far, students have been assigned clients in guardianship proceedings; however, it is hoped that students will be able to assist indigent clients with all types of cases heard by probate courts in the future.
Once the students receive their client assignments, the students conduct an initial interview where they meet the client and inquire about the issues giving rise to the proceeding.
The students then prepare all the necessary forms and pleadings, which are reviewed by the student’s supervising attorney before they are finalized, signed, and filed with the court.
Similar to actual practice, students participate in follow-up meetings and conferences with the clients as necessary. Once all pleadings have been filed and required notices have been given, the students attend the hearing with their supervising attorney and their clients.
After the hearings, the students explain the outcome of the hearing to their clients and provide the clients the information and forms for any follow-up reporting and requirements they may have as part of their appointment. Finally, the students conclude representation by filing a motion and obtaining an order for withdrawal as counsel.
Clients are indigent families who need assistance navigating the courts to obtain guardianships or conservatorships. Unfortunately, "the probate courts nationally are seeing an unprecedented demand for trained, dedicated, and ment of guardians and conservators for elderly, incapacitated adults," Stewart said. Through the Practicum, DU is preparing its students to meet this demand and offer a safe environment for students to practice the legal skills they are taught in law school.
Cameron Richards is one example of the level of dedication and compassion the practicum student’s exhibit. Richards was assigned to assist his client, Cindy C., with obtaining a guardianship for a minor. The initial hearing was expected to be routine; however, it quickly became anything but. During the two-hour hearing, witnesses were called and objections were raised, but Richards, who sat with his supervising attorney Leia Ursery, took everything that was thrown at him and stood his ground. The case did not end with that hearing, but Richards was determined to see his case through.
Recently, Richards sat beside Ursey again and saw his client’s case reach a conclusion that benefitted everyone involved. After the hearing, the client repeatedly thanked Richards for all of his hard work. She expressed how lost she felt before Richards was assigned her case through the practicum and how happy she was that "everything worked out great."
While Richard’s case was not typical, it solidified the value of the Probate Practicum. It follows with DU’s strategic plan to increase the amount of practical experience available to its students to produce graduates who are ready to provide value to their clients. Elder law and estate planning are issues that will affect us all at some point, and it allows students to become the trained, dedicated, and compassionate lawyers Stewart said are necessary in probate courts.
Though the practicum is still in its infancy, it has received positive feedback from students, clients, and the courts. The Jefferson County District Court has expressed a willingness to be a part of the practicum and it is anticipated that other courts also will join.
I am hopeful this program will benefit future law students at DU because, as Katz explained, this practicum "may provide a template for similar practicums that could allow DU to expand the opportunities it provide for its students to engage in supervised direct representation of live clients. Before this, such valuable opportunities were primarily restricted to the Student Law Office, which unfortunately has limited capacity. In this model, DU teams up with top-shelf practitioners in our community to meet a serious legal need and provide great training for its students."D
Lauren Lockard is a recent graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Lockard recently received the DU Student Leadership Award for "Most Innovative Program Implemented Within the Law School" for the creation of the Probate Practicum. Lockard intends to practice in the areas of elder law and trusts and estates.