In August of this year, Indiana Tech Law School opened its doors in Fort Wayne with a commitment to changing the way legal education prepares students. Despite the national news reporting that there are too many law schools and not enough jobs and the Internet blogs criticizing all new start-ups as a waste of a student’s money, Indiana Tech Law School was established, in part, to respond to the criticism that law schools are not adequately training students to become effective legal professionals.
The bench and the bar have been asking the Legal Academy for years to change the ways in which they prepare students for success in law or in whatever career path they may choose. Many schools have not taken that request seriously and, today, we see a shrinking national applicant pool and some law schools shrinking the sizes of their entering classes.
When my colleagues and I are asked why Indiana needs a fifth law school, we focus on how our school will be different from the hundreds of other institutions already in existence. For us, the answer is simple. We are committed to blending theory and practice from the very start of law school through experiential and collaborative learning. To that end, we have a number of innovative programs to give our students more confidence and more practical experience before they graduate.
Each of our law students will be mentored by a member of the Allen County bench and bar and the mentor will stay with their student through all three years of law school. Over 70 judges and lawyers have signed up to serve as mentors and several have told me that their mentees have already been in touch with them. Each mentor is asked to meet with his or her law student twice each semester, take the student to at least one networking event each year, and allow the student to shadow them on occasion. We suggest that the mentors meet with the students over a meal on occasion and invite their mentees to spend time with them on a boring day as well as when something exciting is happening.
The innovations continue in the curriculum as well. “Tech Law” requires all students to complete three courses in ethics and professionalism, with two courses being offered in the very first year of law school. In addition, every student must complete 30 hours of pro bono legal service as a condition of graduation. In their second and third years, every student will be able to work in either an in-house legal clinic or in an externship program to gain additional practical skills. Moreover, for students who are concentrating their studies in a particular field, we have created opportunities for them to spend one of their two last semesters in law school in a full-time “semester-in-practice” placement, working 40 hours per week for academic credit. This immersion into a particular field should give our students a minimum of four months of practical experience, prior to graduation, in addition to any summer experiences that they might have.
We also intend to share most of our classrooms with our colleagues in the practice of law. In every required course and in half of all the electives taught each semester, the faculty will give up 2 to 4 hours in each of their classes to invite a judge or an attorney to share real-life problems relating to the material that the class just covered. We think that applying history and theory to current situations will also help the students better prepare for life in the practice. During each guest’s visit, the professor will work with the judge or lawyer to create a written exercise for the students to complete so that, by the end of their three years in law school, each student will have a portfolio of written work to present to a prospective employer.
In my criminal law course this semester, we studied strict liability offenses (those crimes that don’t require the government to prove a mental state in addition to an act) and we reviewed cases that challenged the validity of strict liability offenses as being void for vagueness and/or overbroad. We invited an Allen County deputy prosecutor into the class to discuss how law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office view strict liability offenses, then he challenged the students to craft an ordinance banning people walking around with their pants sagging below their underwear. The students accepted the challenge and spent a lot of time discussing and writing what might seem to some as very simple legislation. The prosecutor returned to our class and discussed the students’ efforts with them. It was a great practical exercise for the students. In addition, I reviewed all of their submissions and gave them feedback on their written work.
To be sure, Tech Law is not turning legal education upside down, but everyone is committed to taking the best practices from around the country, bringing them together in one comprehensive program, and making them available to every law student. With our partners in the practice and on the bench, our law school plans to educate a new generation of lawyers who will be better prepared than any other students from any other school.
At Indiana Tech, we are trying to respond to the changing landscape by forming real and meaningful partnerships with those who are engaged in the practice of law and in other professions where a law degree might be very helpful. With their help, we believe that we will prepare the next generation of lawyers for success in law, leadership and life.•
Peter C. Alexander became the founding dean of Indiana Tech Law School on 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. Alexander received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and his Juris Doctor from Northeastern University in Boston.