Class considers profession

March 29, 2010
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IL reporter Rebecca Berfanger wrote this post.

Last week, I was invited to sit in on a class for an article I’m working on about the legal professions class at Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington.

As part of a new requirement at the law school that started last spring, 1L students take an ethics and professional responsibility class that offers a new look at not only how to think like a lawyer but also what it means to practice as a lawyer.

By teaching students about real situations that had real ethical dilemmas, the professors go through the situations step by step, including the specific rules of professional conduct that can be applied.

During the March 23 class, the situation involved an associate at a large international law firm who had learned the day before a deposition with another large law firm’s attorneys that an employee of the client company may have forged documents.

In this scenario, explained professor and attorney John Steele, the associate has to choose between letting the client attend the deposition and either lie about or admit to forging the documents. Or the associate can ask opposing counsel to postpone the deposition without going into too much detail to tip them off as to what is going on. Neither situation is an easy thing to handle for the associate and his client.

Steele then asked the students what they would do and why, going rule by rule as to the ethical issues involved, including best practices of how to stay out of the situation in the first place when representing a client and an employee of a client.

Steele, who flies in every week from California to teach the four-credit course while maintaining his law practice, has taught legal ethics before, but said this was a truly unique offering making it worth the travel time to Indiana.

Other than ethical issues, the course offers in-depth discussions about different types of legal jobs to consider. In an opening lecture, Steele showed a pie chart that illustrated only about 4 percent of legal jobs are at big law firms, and the rest are in many other areas.

Because the class I attended happened to involve attorneys at a large law firm, he explained to students how to react to the situation if they ever find themselves in that young associate’s predicament particularly with a large firm, but the advice could also apply to a small firm. Luckily, he said, most firms would rally around their young associates, and it wouldn’t hurt their jobs if they needed to speak up.

In this situation, for example, he encouraged the students not only to figure out what the professional rules were that would apply, but to start by simply asking, “Who is the client?” and go from there.

If you’re a student at I.U. Maurer School of Law or another school with this type of class, what did you think? If you haven’t taken this version of the legal professions class in law school, how did your ethics class compare?
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