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Dean's Desk: Effective legal education depends on strong partnerships

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dean-buxbaun-hannahIn recent years, the state of legal education in the United States has attracted significant attention from outside the academy. The resulting discussion has touched on a number of issues. Some of them relate to the financing of law education: tuition policies, student debt loads, state support for public universities. Others include the accreditation process and law schools’ reporting of admissions and employment data. The most fundamental question that has been raised, however, is simply whether legal education today is effective — and whether it is sufficiently relevant to students’ future careers as practicing lawyers.

To be effective and relevant, law education must provide students with a bridge to a legal career. Even if law graduates cannot be expected on day one to possess the full complement of lawyerly techniques, they should be expected to arrive with the basic set of skills and professional competencies that successful lawyers require. Just as important, they should know something about the profession that they will be joining, and they should have taken the first steps toward developing their own professional goals and identity.

Building this bridge between law schools and law practice calls for strong and successful partnerships among law schools, practicing lawyers and other professionals. At Indiana University Maurer School of Law, we are committed to the pursuit of these partnerships. I want to highlight two of them.

Partnerships with adjunct faculty

At Indiana Law, our adjunct faculty members help us build the bridge to professional life in at least three ways:

Specialized instruction. Drawing on a wealth of experience in particular fields of practice, adjunct faculty members offer important enrichment courses to upper-class law students. They teach classes such as IP antitrust, state and local tax, Federal Circuit advocacy, and state constitutional law, among many others. These courses allow our students to build on doctrinal and analytical foundations while acquiring deeper knowledge in areas in which they might ultimately practice.

Practice-oriented instruction. The instruction that adjunct faculty members provide is grounded in their deeply contextualized knowledge of the law as it plays out in courtrooms, conference rooms and client interactions. This practice-oriented instruction helps students identify the patterns of law in action and gives them a feel for the modes of analysis and argumentation on which lawyers depend.

Real-time case studies. Many of our adjuncts teach their classes in a real-time setting. They bring to Bloomington matters they are working on that call for high-level problem-solving, with all the consequences and time constraints of an actual practice. This approach gives students a first-hand view of the capacities that successful lawyers require: among them problem-solving, leadership, communication, priority-setting, responsiveness to deadlines, and the ability to weigh the risks and benefits of alternative legal strategies.

Partnerships with alumni and friends

In 2009, the Maurer School of Law redesigned its course on professional responsibility. In addition to the typical study of the “law of lawyering,” the course helps students identify the career that will best suit them, based on the discovery of their personal and professional strengths, attributes and values. Our partnership with members of the practicing bar has been indispensable in making this course a success — part of a true professional development program.

Alumni and friends of the school contribute their time and expertise to the program in the following ways:

• They participate in panel discussions featuring lawyers from many different practice settings, as well as additional events such as networking sessions and resume workshops.

• Through our Career Choices series, a required component of the legal profession course, lawyers come to Bloomington to speak to students about their work, including their substantive area of practice. In addition, Career Choices speakers invite students to individual or small-group informational interviews or discussions during their visit to the school.

• In one required course assignment, students conduct independent research to help them learn about the context in which lawyers work while reflecting on their own potential fit within the profession. To do this, they interview five law school graduates in person, at least two of whom they don’t already know. Based on their interviews, students write a paper covering what they learned about the work undertaken by law graduates and how the lessons from the interview have shaped their own career plans.

In a typical year, nearly 100 lawyers visit the Maurer School of Law to share their experiences and hundreds more help with the interview assignment. Our career development program would simply not be possible without this strong partnership between our school and the bench and bar.

Partnerships with adjunct faculty members and other legal professionals contribute something that enhances our students’ educational experience immeasurably: a contextual, applied orientation to the law that helps students close the gap between what they learn in law school and where they are headed in practice. They play a unique and crucial role in increasing the effectiveness and relevance of law education.•

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Hannah L. Buxbaum is Interim Dean and John E. Schiller Chair in Legal Ethics at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Opinions expressed are the author’s.

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