By Melinda Rogers
Jackson Howard remembers the moment like it was yesterday: He was 23 years old and walked into a Utah County courtroom, where he volunteered to represent a lengthy list of indigent clients on the docket for free.
The county — which at the time relied on lawyers from the Utah State Bar to volunteer their services to represent clients who today would be assigned a public defender — was delighted. Some of Howard’s peers, on the other hand, thought the young lawyer was crazy for taking on the workload.
But a youthful Howard saw opportunity in representing dozens of clients for whom he’d never see a dime. He quickly learned how to speak to a jury, speak to a judge and how to try cases based on the volume of work he’d taken on. Those skills soon helped him advance to a variety of positions in the legal community over a storied career, including stints with the District Attorney’s Office, Utah State Bar Commission, Utah State Legislative Counsel, Utah State District Attorney’s Association, Utah Board of Governors, among other opportunities.
Howard, now 90 and a member of the 1950 graduating class at the University of Utah College of Law, shared stories about both work and life experiences this month with a group of law students who are part of a newly launched pilot program aimed at connecting aspiring attorneys with mentors.
The event connected 20 students to distinguished alumni from the S.J. Quinney College of Law, where aspiring attorneys listened to war stories from the field and asked questions of their more experienced counterparts in a roundtable setting.
The session was part of the student mentoring component of the law school’s 100/100 initiative, a goal announced by S.J. Quinney College of Law Dean Bob Adler in September 2015 to reach 100 percent bar passage and 100 percent professional employment placement among all S.J. Quinney graduates. The initiative incorporates the philosophy that the law school will find every law student a practicing lawyer mentor. The chance for students to learn directly from those in the field is essential to rounding out the traditional educational opportunities found in the classroom, Adler said.
“We can teach them the law. We can teach them legal analysis. But most law professors haven’t built a law practice for 40 years. We can’t give those kinds of practical skills about how you go into a community, meet people, become a leader, gather people’s trust and build a career,” said Adler. “That’s the senior experience these successful attorneys can give to students in this setting.”
Howard’s stories were a highlight for students in attendance, who heard what it was like to practice law in Utah during a different era. Howard established the original law firm of Howard and Lewis, which in 1973 became Howard, Lewis & Petersen, P.C., — today the oldest law firm in Utah County.
In addition to Howard, students had a pool of prominent S.J. Quinney alumni to engage with, including Pamela T. Greenwood, a 1972 alumna and former presiding judge of the Utah Court of Appeals; Paul Durham, a 1980 alumnus and founder of Utah-based Durham Jones & Pinegar (D|J|P); Richard Burbidge, a 1972 alumnus and managing partner of Salt Lake City firm Burbidge Mitchell & Gross; and Charlotte Miller, a 1983 alumna who is currently the chief human resources officer at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
Students peppered alumni with a variety of questions, from how to build a client base to how to become better writers to how they handled difficult situations in the field. Student mentoring sessions with alumni will continue in the upcoming academic year, said Jess Hofberger, director of the professional development office at the law school.
“It’s an opportunity for alumni and practicing attorneys to pass on the torch to a new generation in a forum that’s small enough where they can really get to know the students,” Hofberger said. “It’s great for students to make these connections to people working in the legal community.”
Lori Nelson, director of alumni relations at the law school, said the inaugural event is an excellent opportunity to foster alumni engagement with students who may one day work side-by-side with their more experienced counterparts.
“Our alumni have the ideal combination of superior legal skills and the willingness to share their expertise with students,” Nelson said. “This benefits students by helping them appreciate the education they are receiving and it helps the alumni, public and greater legal community by graduating students who are better prepared to enter the legal world ready to apply their education with competence and professionalism.”