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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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