MISSOULA – At the University of Montana’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law, students gain real-world legal experience on their paths to earning their Juris Doctors. For a select number each semester, that experience comes in the form of individualized practical training with the Honorable Benjamin Hursh of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Montana.
Just a few years ago, shortly after the judge was appointed to the bench, Hursh became involved in supervising the bankruptcy clinic at UM’s law school, sharing with students his enthusiasm and giving them insight into the area of bankruptcy law. In the spring of 2021, he also began teaching the school’s bankruptcy class.
“My interest in supervising the clinic and teaching the bankruptcy class reflects my strong belief that I would not have the privilege of serving on the bench if it had not been for innumerable people who made investments in me as a student when I attended law school at the University of Montana and later as an attorney,” Hursh said. “By teaching and supervising the clinic, I hope I can contribute something to the students’ education and professional development in the same way that so many contributed to mine.”
With the assistance of Jonathon Byington, a UM professor of law and associate dean of academic affairs, Hursh developed an oral argument assignment at the end of the semester. The goal was to give students an opportunity to venture into the courtroom and make an argument under the same conditions they will encounter in practice.
Prior to the oral argument, Hursh provided students with the actual briefs that were filed with the Court framing several legal issues involving an objection to a proof of claim. Next, the judge provided the audio file for the actual evidentiary hearing that took place in the case and the exhibits that were introduced at the hearing.
The assignment instructions explained that a brief recess was requested and granted at the conclusion of the hearing, and counsel would be afforded the opportunity to make a brief argument to the court following the recess.
The students served as counsel for the creditor in the assignment, each presenting their argument to the Court. At the conclusion of each argument, Hursh provided students with comments on what he thought they did well, as well as constructive criticism.
“I really enjoyed that it was focused more on the practice than on the heady doctrinal aspects of bankruptcy law,” said Peter Yould, a student in Hursh’s bankruptcy class and recent UM graduate. “This helped to keep the class discussions interesting and the coursework engaging. The oral argument in court as the experiential capstone to the class really revived my interest in litigation.”
“As a student, some of the most valuable law school experiences I had were the practical skills exercises, including the oral argument in appellate advocacy,” said Hursh. “I can remember a key point in the argument I presented, but I cannot remember any exam I took. As a result, I wanted to include a similar component in the bankruptcy class.”
Like the bankruptcy class, practical experience is also key in the bankruptcy clinic Hursh supervises.
“The emphasis in the clinic is on developing skills and habits that will serve the student well in any firm or chambers the student may find themselves in,” said Hursh. “I work directly with each student and do my best to mentor the student in the clinic the same way I would mentor an associate in practice.”
At the beginning of the clinic, Hursh asks students to identify specific goals for themselves. If they express an interest in receiving constructive criticism on their writing and analysis, Hursh asks students to draft bench memoranda. In other circumstances, he might request a concise summary of pertinent information – or “cheat sheet” – to use during hearings and then redline the students’ drafts and walk through the rationale for each change with them.
“To date, I think each student’s experience has been unique, in part because no two students begin the clinic with the same skill set,” said Hursh.
“For me, the entire clinic experience clerking with Judge Hursh and the bankruptcy court was one of my best experiences in law school, primarily because of Judge Hursh himself,” said Rob Joki, a recent bankruptcy clinic student and 2021 law graduate. “Despite the judge’s busy schedule, he spent a significant amount of time working one-on-one with me, discussing the issues raised before the court, providing critical feedback on my work and giving me general professional guidance for after law school. It was also nice to engage the bankruptcy code with real-time events and to see it in action, as it provided a perspective that is often hard to see from the books and the case law.
“I will be working in the bankruptcy field after law school,” Joki said. “I have a job lined up with Crowley Fleck and their banking and finance and creditor rights practice group in Billings. Bankruptcy will not be the only area of the law I will be working in. However, my ultimate career goal is to eventually focus predominately on bankruptcy.”
Since fall 2018, Hursh has mentored 10 students over six semesters. Five of the 10 are actively working in the bankruptcy practice area.
“While I am pleased by that, I want my clinic students to find the practice area or specialty that they find most rewarding and spend a career doing their best work in that area for their clients,” the judge said.
For more information, visit the Blewett School of Law website at https://www.umt.edu/law.
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