Kelver Hall and Williams: Practice-preparedness opportunities: Then and now

A common refrain in the legal profession is that law school does not teach students how to be attorneys. Instead, it focuses on teaching standard legal principles, common law tradition and, if you pay attention, how to think like an attorney. But even knowing how to think like an attorney is an empty proposition without the opportunity to apply that knowledge. In an effort to shore up experiential shortcomings, law schools and bar associations have increasingly emphasized the importance of practical learning opportunities to expose students to the day-to-day practice of law that they might not otherwise see until employed.

In this article, we — the new and not-so-new business litigators — will explore the evolution of practical or practice-preparedness opportunities at our alma mater and the ways in which these opportunities prepared us for the transition to law firm work. We hope to demonstrate the value of practice-preparedness opportunities and the importance they have in preparing students to be successful attorneys.

Experiential opportunities in the early 2000s: Angela

I started law school in the year 2000. No one had smartphones, and we handwrote our exam answers. When I wanted to procrastinate from bar exam study, I rented DVDs from a mail-order company called Netflix.

It is really hard for me to process that I have been practicing law for almost 20 years, as I still feel like a slightly smarter version of that law student most days. But I have seen a lot of new attorneys come through the firm since I started, and what I have witnessed has only strengthened my belief that the more practical experience a law student can gain, the more he or she will be prepared for and fulfilled by the practice of law. While there are exceptions, my consistent observation is that our best associates are our most experienced associates. This category includes not only associates who had other careers prior to law and those who did clerkships before coming to the firm, but also those who took advantage of the many opportunities that they now have to obtain practical experience while still in law school. And it’s not just better for their employers — I’ve also observed that it leads to happier, more self-confident associates.

While the opportunities were fewer back in the early 2000s, the-school-not-yet-called IU Maurer definitely recognized the need for practical experience and encouraged us to get involved with clinics and other outside opportunities early on. My first practical experience was with the Protective Order Project, or POP, during my 1L year. POP provided me with so many invaluable experiences: drafting real-life pleadings, working with and on behalf of real clients facing incredibly difficult circumstances, and seeing firsthand how facts are analyzed and law is applied in an actual court setting. The experience provided me with both the confidence and motivation to want to do more, and better, the next time around. And these are exactly the kinds of lessons that law school should impart.

Stints as a judicial extern for the inimitable Judge Sarah Evans Barker and as an intern for Indiana Legal Services in Bloomington, both fostered by IU Maurer, followed. Each experience taught me things that cannot be learned in any lecture: the practical implications of legal research beyond a fact pattern, that clients are both amazing and difficult (sometimes at the same time) and that not much feels better than standing on the “right” side of a dispute. And each experience helped me along the path toward what would be the right fit for me and brought me one step closer to finding my professional home.

IU Maurer’s practical opportunities have multiplied and traveled far beyond the Midwest since my Bloomington days. As Liam explains below, IU Maurer has six legal clinics now, including the fantastic Community Legal Clinic where dozens of my classmates cut their teeth. There are many opportunities to work and study outside of the United States. And importantly, IU Maurer and other law schools are providing more experiential opportunities for students interested in legal careers outside of litigation. IU Maurer’s Elmore Entrepreneurship Law Clinic is a great place for our non-litigation-inclined friends to provide practical assistance to, and gain practical experience from, high-growth-potential startups.

The right career fit can really only be accomplished through trial and error. Law school is a short three years, and law students have only two summers in which to dedicate themselves to full-time employment. Two summers may simply not be enough to discover the type of job that will make a future attorney productive and fulfilled. Practical opportunities are the best way to find the right fit, and I am so glad to see law schools like IU Maurer rising to the occasion and facilitating more practical opportunities for our future generations of attorneys.

Experiential opportunities in the late 2010s: Liam

When I started law school in the fall of 2018, there were many opportunities to gain practical experience. From IU Maurer’s six clinics to its externships and pro bono opportunities, a student looking for practical experience could easily find it.

My most significant and impactful opportunity was the Stewart Fellows Global Internship Program. The program allows IU Maurer students to work abroad for part of their summer, providing opportunities to work in law firms, government agencies and other legal organizations. I applied to intern in Poland during my 1L summer, which provided two amazing opportunities: interning for the Polish ombudsman (Adam Bodnar at the time, for any political buffs out there) or the law firm Wardyński & Partners. Though it was a tough choice, I chose the less politically intriguing opportunity and predictably interned at Wardyński.

I know some readers might be thinking that interning abroad is less involved or rigorous than interning domestically, but that assumption would be mistaken. I had the opportunity to develop similar skills to those that I am using now: I performed research on various American legal concepts (to analogize to Polish law), drafted legal memoranda and even drafted a complaint. All this and more in a six-week period, during my first substantive legal experience. And this opportunity translated well to working in an American law firm. It exposed me to balancing different work streams and performing some of the work that I do now (albeit at a higher level of generality). Having a school-sponsored opportunity to work at a firm and engage in substantive work was one of the best practical experiences I had in law school.

Another great opportunity was the Incarcerated Individuals Legal Assistance Project, which is a pro bono organization that tasks students with responding to letters from Indiana inmates seeking legal direction. Although I could not provide legal advice, the project emphasized the importance of client relationships, identifying critical issues and being responsive to concerns. The experience I gained here certainly translates to my work now, as it would be an understatement to say that communication and responsiveness are important skills for law firm associates.

Then there are the internal competitions. IU Maurer’s annual Sherman Minton Moot Court Competition was the primary means for me to develop oral advocacy skills during law school. Although I did not reach the finals, I had the opportunity to practice and receive feedback from attorneys and judges to hone my skills. I also participated in the internal alternative dispute resolution competition that, rather than focusing on appellate advocacy, provided trial-adjacent advocacy experience. These experiences prepared me well for one of the highlights of my first year as an associate: arguing a motion to dismiss before a state court judge. I was prepared to outline effectively, craft a rebuttal based on live argument and actually argue. Although mock competitions are not perfect preparation for the real thing, they are and have been useful experiences for me. Altogether, the skills imparted on me through these experiences have only matured since I joined Faegre Drinker and provided a valuable kickstart for what I would be doing at the firm.

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Law schools have evolved to better prepare their students for the challenges of legal work after graduation by taking education outside of the classroom. Practical opportunities are invaluable for student development and to cultivate skills that translate well into a law firm. Better prepared young attorneys make for a happier, more confident profession, and that benefits us all, from first-years to old-timers.•

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Angela Kelver Hall is a business litigation partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. She has nearly two decades of experience and graduated in the Indiana University Maurer School of Law class of 2003. Liam Williams is a first-year associate in the business litigation group at Faegre Drinker and graduated from IU Maurer in 2021. Opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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