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Dean's Desk: Legal education partners enhance law school experience

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alexanderFor decades, members of the bench and bar have asked law schools to do a better job when preparing law students for careers in law, especially when it comes to practical skills training. For an even longer period of time, law schools largely focused on the history and theory of law and expected the members of our profession to provide much of the skills training and development.

In 1992, an ABA task force, chaired by New York attorney Robert MacCrate, recommended that law schools shift their efforts to a more practice-oriented model of legal education. The “MacCrate Report,” as it was known, challenged the long-standing educational model that required law students to sit in classrooms and read appellate cases over and over in an attempt to learn how to think and reason “like a lawyer.” Since the MacCrate Report was issued, some law schools have dramatically shifted their curricular focus from a steady diet of appellate cases to blended curricula that provide greater exposure for students in areas like legal research and writing, client interviewing, drafting and other traditional lawyering skills. However, there is much work left to be done.

At Indiana Tech Law School, we have decided to partner with our local legal community in order to break out of the mold of the “traditional law school.” The judges and lawyers in Northeast Indiana and Northwest Ohio have been invited to invest themselves in the success of our school and in the professional development of our students, and they have stepped up in a big way to help us.

Each of our law students has been assigned a judge or lawyer mentor. The mentors have agreed to counsel and advise students for all three years of law school. In addition, the mentors allow our students to shadow them and each one has promised to take their mentees to networking events so that the students begin to meet and interact with other legal professionals. These mentor relationships are very special and they supplement the classroom education that our faculty members can provide. Some students have reported that they are able to observe, up close, how law offices are managed and how attorneys, staff and clients interact with one another. Other students have commented that meeting local courthouse personnel and learning what each person does have been invaluable. Those are lessons that most full-time academics could not recreate in a traditional law school course.

We are also inviting judges and lawyers into our classrooms. In every required course and in half of the electives offered each semester, each professor invites someone from the profession into the classroom to share “real world” problems, issues and/or examples. In my Criminal Law class, for example, we spent several class periods discussing strict liability offenses (such as vagrancy and loitering ordinances). The students easily grasped the sociological and historical contexts for most of these laws, and they could appreciate on an intellectual level the legal challenges to the laws that have been raised over the years. We discussed “void for vagueness” and challenges to laws that are “overbroad.” But, once the strict liability unit concluded, I invited a deputy county prosecutor into class to talk about why strict liability ordinances are effective crime-fighting tools. It was a lively discussion and the students learned a lot from our guest. At the end of the class hour, we handed out an assignment to give the students an opportunity to try and draft a three- or four-sentence ordinance banning “saggy pants,” which has become a rather common, if not unsightly, fashion statement in recent years.

The students were permitted to work in groups and they threw themselves into the exercise. What they didn’t realize was that I was going to share their ordinances with our guest and he was going to return to the classroom and discuss their work with them. Upon his return, the deputy prosecutor learned that the students worked hard to draft a law that wouldn’t be void for vagueness or that could survive a challenge that it was overbroad. What our students learned was just how difficult the assignment was! The deputy prosecutor then reviewed some of the ordinances that were drafted and helped the students see that their effort to draft a clear and constitutional ordinance may have come up a bit short.

The class conversation also touched on whether we even need an ordinance like the one that they had attempted to draft. We had a candid conversation about the demographic who would be most affected by the ordinance banning saggy pants. There was widespread recognition that the people who wear their pants well below their waistline are young, male and minority, and some students challenged all of us to question what the true purpose of a saggy-pants ordinance might be, offering that it might be discriminatory.

The interactions between our colleagues in the profession and our students and faculty are growing in number and the professional ties that we have forged are growing deeper. We simply could not bring as many real world experiences (great and small) to our students if we didn’t have assistance from our judge and lawyer partners.

As law schools try and respond to the longstanding plea from the bench and bar that we need to provide law students with a more practical grounding prior to graduation from law school, the solution might just be to engage the bench and bar in the direct instruction that is provided to the students. Rather than hire every judge and lawyer in the community as an adjunct professor to offer yet another course that relies on appellate cases and classroom discussion, a better answer might be to create moments of interaction so that students can observe and learn practical skills and lessons from our colleagues in the profession. We certainly hope so at Indiana Tech!•

__________

Peter C. Alexander became the founding dean of Indiana Tech Law School Jan. 9, 2012. He served as a member of the faculty at the Southern Illinois University School of Law from 2003 until January 2012, and he served as dean of the law school from 2003 until 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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  • Law school debtor
    This "practice-oriented" curriculum will do nothing to solve the problem of too many lawyers. If you're taking out debt to attend Indiana Tech law school, I hope you've done your research. Spend some time Googling law school debt, jobs, salaries, etc. and take a good hard look in the mirror.

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