PUBLISHED:January 27, 2010

The Dean's course

On a mid-November evening, the Law School’s Star Commons is filled to capacity with first-year law students, all listening attentively as two of the country’s top trial lawyers, Hal Haddon ’66 and Michael Tigar, talk about their careers and their craft. As the two recall notable — sometimes notorious — clients and cases, their shared passion for criminal defense law is clearly on display.

“The most important piece of the mosaic to me is the fact that you really do hold a human life in your hands,” says Haddon, who practiced as a public defender before founding Haddon, Morgan, Mueller, Jordan, Mackey & Foreman in Denver. “Especially when the defendant doesn’t testify, the jury looks at the criminal defendant through you. You're the lens through which they see that person and judge that person. I find it very profound.” It is also, he adds, “terrifying” to stand beside a client during sentencing.

Tigar observes that the willingness and the “courage” to provide even the most despised defendant a fair trial is a measure of a society. “To be a lawyer, and to stand at the center of such a process is a privilege,” says Tigar, whose clients have included Angela Davis, activist lawyer Lynne Stewart, and Terry Nichols and who now teaches criminal law, civil procedure, and other classes relating to trial and appellate practice at Duke Law. “If you care about it, it takes a lot out of you physically, mentally, and emotionally. But at the same time, there is nothing in the world that the law has to offer that is more the basis for gratification.”

This is the essence of The Dean’s Course, a required year-long course designed by Dean David F. Levi to introduce first-year students to the profession, generally, and to the universal characteristics valued and modeled in the profession, more specifically. Held monthly, each class focuses on either a discrete characteristic of good lawyering or on a foundational aspect of law or practice.

On their first day at Duke Law, 1Ls heard Ben Heineman, the former general counsel of General Electric, reflect on the types of questions he was called upon to handle on a daily basis, as well as other challenges faced during his varied career; he has served as a public interest lawyer, as assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and as a constitutional litigator in private practice.

“The takeaway was to let students have a sense of the multiplicity of kinds of questions a lawyer working for a big company might have to handle — there are many and so many of them call on interdisciplinary lawyering,” says Levi. “One of the points Ben drives home is that a multinational like GE really valued lawyers who had training in public policy and development economics and understood how developing economies and developing governmental institutions can be supported. As Ben makes clear, there will be many times in a lawyer's career that creativity and leadership are called for, when the lawyer is also a decisionmaker.”

In another session, the vice dean for research at Duke’s Medical School, Sally Kornbluth, offered students insight into the kinds of ethical issues that research scientists can encounter and how, as lawyers, they might have to advise — and understand — members of other professions. Two judges, Judge James Dever ’87 of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, and Associate Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson of the North Carolina Supreme Court, discussed the ways they approach their judicial craft and how they expect lawyers in their courtrooms to approach theirs. During the spring 2010 semester students will hear from Martin Lipton, a founder of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, and one of the leading — and most innovative — corporate, M & A, and securities practitioners in the country, as well as from Frank Hunger ’65, former Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

“Our goal is to expose students to different kinds of careers and the many different questions — legal and quasi-legal — that lawyers routinely address and which draw on their judgment and their maturity, their understanding of how non-lawyers look at problems and react to situations. At the same time, we try to expose them to different people in the profession or at Duke University so they can expand their views of what lawyers do,” says Levi. Levi adds that it is “a joy” to teach the course with Professor John Weistart ’68 “who is such a thoughtful person and wonderful teacher.”

On this November evening, Haddon and Tigar are delving into the particular challenges of trying high-profile cases, including Tigar’s defense of Terry Nichols against federal charges stemming from the Oklahoma City bombing and Haddon’s defense of NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant against sexual assault charges.

Both lawyers mention having to balance their reticence to talk to the press about ongoing cases against the need to control initial public perceptions which are “indelible,” says Haddon. “The press wants to immediately solve whatever high-profile criminal case is the case du jour, and they want to figure out immediately — and, typically, forever in the public mind — who the victim is and who the villain is,” he observes.

After investigating 2003 sexual abuse charges against Bryant, Haddon and his partner, Pamela Mackey, knew what their client’s defense would be: “‘I had sex with the accuser, but it was consensual.’” With a media firestorm in progress and with the limitations of the Rules of Professional Conduct firmly in mind, Haddon and Mackey held a single, tightly-controlled press conference in the press room at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Bryant acknowledged a consensual sexual encounter and apologized to his wife, to the media, and to the public. Bryant didn’t talk to the media again.

“What you saw play out over the next 14 months [until the charge was dismissed] was that same indelible image: Kobe sitting there, tearfully, with his wife, and apologizing. It was used as a lead or a trailer or a filler for every story that ran thereafter,” Haddon says.

Asked by Levi about how to address the press in cases where a corporate entity has been prosecuted, Haddon observes that extreme caution is in order.

“Whenever a case involving a major public corporation breaks, you have to be extraordinarily careful about not just what you as a lawyer say, but what the company says, because you have a lot of constituencies who are watching and who will hold you liable for what you say,” Haddon says, citing the SEC, shareholders, and employees as constituents that must be considered. He stresses the importance, though, of finding ways to posit the corporate defendant as a “community” of workers and good corporate citizen.

After the discussion, Levi presents the class assignment: Draft a press release on behalf of a company whose founder and CEO has been indicted for insider trading in less than an hour. It is designed to be a simulation, he says, of “what could happen to you on your very first day of practice when a high-profile case breaks and you are asked to get a press release over to the corporate general counsel within 45 minutes.”

Receiving practical advice from such experienced advocates as Tigar and Haddon was “thrilling,” according to 1L Madora “Dorie” Mayne, adding that the course is a good complement to the first-year curriculum. “It has helped to provide a broader context into which we can insert the more abstract concepts and theories that we explore in our classes. It gives us the opportunity to pull-up from the complexities of our assignments and think about the law more fully as a profession or an instrument of justice. In addition, 1Ls who are uncertain about their long-term plans are exposed to a variety of different occupational opportunities made available by a law degree.”

Having had a chance to speak with Haddon privately after class, she adds that his obvious passion for the law after decades of practice resonated with her. “He expressed such a sincere and profound empathy for each client, and seemed to truly personify the role of advocate,” she says. “It was so inspiring to hear him speak because it was a reminder of all of the possibilities available in the law.”