Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why I Teach: Suzanne Valdez

When Suzanne Valdez launched her legal career, she developed most of her professional expertise on the job — an experience that sparked an unexpected passion for equipping future lawyers with practical skills.

"As a young lawyer, I never learned how to do a deposition," Valdez said. "If I could give our students an opportunity to learn that in an educational arena where they can make a mistake and clients’ interests aren’t at stake, why not?”

Valdez's vision inspired the Deposition Skills Workshop, a simulated deposition and case theory discussion performed under the guidance of experienced alumni faculty. The course has grown from 18 students to 48 in six years, becoming a model for the Expert Witness Workshop, which was developed with the same format. Valdez hopes to eventually offer a Negotiation course with a similar structure.

Valdez, L’96, was working with Kansas Legal Services when she got a call from Professor Webb Hecker. KU was hiring a supervising attorney in its Legal Aid Clinic, and given her fondness for Green Hall, Valdez applied. She was hired, with the opportunity to teach Practice in Kansas, her favorite course, and eventually Criminal Prosecution Clinic, Pretrial Advocacy and Professional Responsibility.

“I said, ‘I’ll give you three years,’” Valdez recalls. “I like new experiences; I like to move around.”

But 15 years later, Valdez is still teaching at KU and practicing at a firm in Lawrence, with a case load ranging from civil cases to employment law, family law and landlord/tenant issues.

Throughout her career, Valdez has watched the legal profession evolve and the KU curriculum respond to those changes. She says employers today are looking for practical, hands-on experience and solid lawyering skills in addition to the traditional academic background.

“Doctrinal teaching is necessary, but it’s not the only thing,” she says. “The days of firms hiring kids out of school and bringing them on for two years and paying them to learn on the job, those days are long gone. The days of having a law review and moot court alone on your resume are gone.”

Thanks in part to Valdez, KU Law students have plenty of opportunity to fill their resumes with practical skills before they leave Green Hall, which she says is just as enriching for her as it is for the students.

“Teaching makes me a better teacher and better lawyer,” she says. “It’s one of the most gratifying experiences for me. I see these workshop students dressed in suits, and they evolve in a matter of four days into fabulous lawyers who can do a deposition. That’s a great thing.” 

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