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School emphasizes responsibility to 1Ls through required course

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As a response to the Carnegie Foundation's report, "Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law" released in early 2007, an Indiana law school has been offering a mandatory class to 1Ls about the professional and ethical rigors of the legal profession.

The Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington was one of the law schools that participated in the Carnegie Foundation's study and has since started a required course for all 1Ls aptly titled "The Legal Profession."

The four-credit hour course considers various aspects of what law students will encounter in their careers. It is possibly the only course like it in the country, and some students have applied to the law school because of the class.

Part of the course is meant to help students determine where they would best fit - whether it's among the decreasing percentage of lawyers who work at large law firms to working as a solo or at a small firm in a small town to government, nonprofit, or other legal jobs. This includes an in-depth assessment early on to determine where the students' strengths and talents could take them.

Students taking the course are also required to attend a number of seminars about career choices that include panels of attorneys, mostly alumni, who share their experiences in their respective fields and network with students.

The class also offers insights into various legal ethical dilemmas and how to survive them.

"The goal is to provide students in their first year with a way to confront their own values and start contextualizing them," said Dean Lauren Robel, who teaches the course along with California attorney and ethics expert John Steele; Bill Henderson, who has been studying the legal profession for a number of years; Carwina Weng, an expert on clinical legal education, multicultural lawyering, and law and psychology; and a number of guest lecturers.

"The beauty of the class is they have conversations about different professional contexts," she said.

While ethics is part of it, she said the course goes "way beyond" the typical two-credit hour ethics course.

"In many ways, the ethics content is less the content than the spine of the course. It allows us to have students begin to put the flesh and the blood on the bones. ... We stress from the first day of class that relationships matter and they matter a lot. You don't want your first interaction with someone to be asking for forgiveness. By developing relationships, meeting with lawyers, going out to dinner with lawyers, they begin to see what comes back from those relationships," Robel said.

One example is a discussion Steele facilitated regarding a young associate at a large international firm who finds out the night before a deposition the client's employee may have forged documents.

In that discussion, Steele had students answer what they would do in that situation - and why - while he would go over the specific rules of professional responsibility they would need to know in that situation.

For instance, if the employee went through with the deposition and was asked about whether the documents were forged, she would either commit perjury, or admit to forging documents. Neither would be good for the attorney or his client.

He also explained another option: The associate could suggest to opposing counsel that his firm would like to reschedule the hearing and would pay for their travel expenses for having to reschedule last minute.

This exercise is also important for the students to know what it's like to work for a large firm and how they need to speak up, even if they aren't sure how their partners will receive criticism. For instance, the simple question "Who's the client?" can make a big difference when those who might be about to do something unethical need to take a step back and think about their next steps.

In this case, he said, the associate and the firm should have had the employee sign something that says the firm is representing her in a limited capacity and that was subject to change. This would protect them and the large corporate client.

Steele also asked the students to explain whether they thought the employee was telling the truth, and what motivation she might have to lie about forged documents.

"We do that exercise - we'll do it another seven or eight times in different contexts throughout the semester," Robel said. "We have the students consider, 'What is it going to feel like if I have to challenge somebody? How can I do it in a tactful way? What are my emotions around this?'"

Steele added that he could teach an ethics course closer to home in Palo Alto, Calif., but because he finds the Bloomington school's work so important, he chooses to spend three days a week in Indiana.

"This is the most challenging work I've done in 25 years of teaching," Robel said. "I really hope it pays off for students, that they'll leave knowing more about themselves and how they fit into the profession."

The Bloomington school was one of 10 law schools asked to participate in the implementation of the Carnegie report, but so far it is the only one to teach the legal professions class in the same format, to the best of Robel's knowledge.

"This is very responsive to that report," she said. Law schools "do an amazing job of teaching students to think like lawyers by the end of their first year. What we don't do a great job of is teaching them how to think like ethical lawyers or professionals embedded in the practice when dealing with clients and other people."

The course also has guest lecturers talk about their careers. Ted A. Waggoner, managing partner of the four-person law firm Peterson & Waggoner in Rochester, and Corinne Finnerty, a partner with the three-person firm McConnell Finnerty Waggoner in North Vernon, discussed with students what it was like to work in a small firm in a small town.

Waggoner said students asked about the work ethic and questions about what office hours were like, what the dress code was, how involved the lawyers were in their communities, and what they needed to know to operate a trust account.

"If you're going to run a small firm or be a solo, you have to be a business person," he said he told the students. "If you don't enjoy that or don't have the skills, it's not advisable to hang a shingle if you don't have the heart to market yourself, to go over payroll, and handle other business functions."

He also taught a weekend course to 2Ls and 3Ls at the law school about what it's like to work as a solo and or at a small firm.

He said he wished the school had a similar course when he was a law student, and that 30 years ago law students were primarily taught how to work for large law firms. But the definition of large law firm has since changed, not to mention there's no guarantee those jobs are even available for recent graduates, let alone students who are still in law school.

"The profession is changing, and I think the small firm aspects are becoming more attractive to younger people than they may have been since the economy has shown that a secure huge pay check is no longer secure," Waggoner said.

Robel added the course is helpful to students going into any type of practice after graduation because there are still some fundamental aspects of being a professional attorney, including interactions with bosses, co-workers, and clients.

"From teaching first-year students, I know that law school ignites intellectual excitement," Robel said. "But that first year does not ignite the understanding of the laws of human activity. Law students need to translate this into a practice that involves other human beings."

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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