The Way We Were: Spotlight on Walter Heiser

In honor of our 40th anniversary celebration, USD Legal Clinics is pleased to present “The Way We Were,” a blog segment featuring the profile and perspective of the pioneers that conceptualized, implemented and carried forward the early years of the Legal Clinics.  This week’s segment highlights Professor Walter Heiser.

Professor Walter Heiser

“I came on the scene as Director of the Legal Clinics back when everyone’s hair was much longer and, well, when I actually had hair,” comments Professor Walter Heiser when asked to talk about what the clinics were like when he arrived at USD in 1978. “One of the things that I think stuck out was that there was no real classroom component to the clinical experience. So after having the opportunity to get my feet wet, I felt it was important to incorporate the opportunity for the students to have a more reflective experience about the skills they were practicing.”

This type of classroom-based focus was a natural outgrowth of his studies with Professor Gary Bellow at Harvard School of Law. Upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Law in 1971, Heiser practiced in Missouri and also served as Associate Director of the Legal Aid Society of St. Louis. In 1977, he accepted a teaching fellowship at Harvard University to obtain his Master of Laws in Teaching.

“What really got me interested in the teaching of clinical law was the opportunity I had to study under Gary Bellow,” says Heiser. “He was considered to be the guru of legal clinical education at a time when the idea of creating an academic clinical experience for attorneys was rather new.”

By the time Heiser arrived at USD, the clinics had moved out of the church in Linda Vista and were housed on-campus, with a number of off-campus placements for students at organizations like the MAAC Project and SDSU. “The off-campus assignments were structured so that students would go out once a week to the off-campus agencies, complete the intake and then work with faculty to decide which cases to take on. Once we signed a case, then the clients came to the clinics on-campus.”

He also worked with faculty to institutionalize the classroom component of the clinical experience. “My contribution really came in bringing what I had learned from Professor Bellow,” describes Heiser. “I guess my goal was for us to be a bit more systematic about skills that were taught.” He notes that their main concern was that students really understood the skills associated with each part of a case. As a result, they created curriculum that ensured that students studied the skill, such as negotiating, in a classroom setting and then practiced it within the context of their case, ultimately getting feedback from their professor.

“We really didn’t want students to just jump in with both feet and not know how to interview or negotiate,” notes Heiser. “We spent a fair amount of time deconstructing lawyering skills so we could then teach them in a classroom setting.” As a result, trial practice courses were expanded and a number of new courses were added to the curriculum.

When asked about the importance of the Legal Clinics, Heiser sums it up to the importance of understanding and learning the skills to be an effective advocate and attorney. “It’s one thing to participate in, for instance, an internship where you may or may not get feedback about your performance and on top of that the feedback you get may or may not be any good,” comments Heiser. “The difference with a clinical experience within a law school program is that you get that practical experience before leaving law school and you actually understand what constitutes good techniques and practices.”

Heiser recalls his five years as clinical director with fondness. “The thing I remember most is the sense of comradeship within the faculty,” recollects Heiser. “The clinical faculty was all really highly motivated to do the best they could in terms of clinical teaching. All that mattered to us was teaching the students properly and we were all focused on learning how to be better teachers, especially as the pressures of tenure weren’t really at play. It was a very exciting, satisfying and rewarding time; I looked forward to going to work every day.”

Upon receiving his tenure in 1983, he was promoted to Associate Dean, a position he held for another five years before becoming full-time faculty. He continues to teach in the areas of civil procedure, international civil litigation and federal jurisdiction. He is the co-author of the casebook California Civil Procedure (Matthew-Bender). Among his publications are “A Minimum Interest Approach to Personal Jurisdiction,” Wake Forest Law Review; “Civil Litigation as a Means of Compensating Victims of International Terrorism,” San Diego International Law Journal; and “Forum Selection Clauses in State Courts,” and “Forum Selection Clauses in Federal Courts,” Florida Law Review. He has been a visiting professor of law at Washington University, St. Louis. Heiser was the recipient of the Thorsnes Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 1997 and a university professorship in 2001.

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