Ochoa: IU Maurer’s commitment to providing legal services

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Historically, law schools across the country have provided much of their experiential education curriculum, and their service to their communities, through traditional law school clinics supervised by full-time faculty members. The subject-matter focus of clinics can vary widely. At the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, for example, there are currently five clinics, including the Protective Order Clinic, Conservation Law Clinic, Reentry Clinic, Entrepreneurship Clinic and Intellectual Property Clinic.

Students often participate in clinical experiences for more than one semester, deepening their doctrinal knowledge and gaining extensive experience over the course of their time in law school. Students regularly report that their clinical work is among the most meaningful of their law school careers. Importantly, our clinics are also very well regarded by the clients who would otherwise be unable to access legal services. In addition to supporting clinical opportunities for the purpose of teaching valuable skills and providing legal help to underserved communities, law schools have increasingly opened additional routes in addition to clinics. This note offers an opportunity to shine a light on just some of the tremendous work and successes of the practica, projects and externships through which students at the IU Maurer School of Law provide thousands of hours of legal services to the state of Indiana each year.

Practicum courses: At IU Maurer, students can choose from a variety of practicum courses taught by practicing attorneys who are members of our adjunct faculty. Akin to what occurs in clinics, students receive academic credit while providing supervised legal assistance to: prisoners in need of assistance with writs of habeas corpus; youth aged 10 or over in the Indiana child welfare system; independent filmmakers seeking assistance on everything from intellectual property questions to production and distribution agreements; and to Indiana University students and student groups. They do this through our Habeas, Child Representation, Independent Film and Student Legal Services practica, respectively.

Externships with practicing attorneys: Students also can provide public interest and public service assistance to practicing lawyers, government offices and judges throughout the state through for-credit externships. Just since August 2022, students have worked in nearly 67 public interest, criminal law or judicial externships, providing more than 8,700 hours of needed assistance in the offices of, for example, county prosecutors and defenders; the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana; the Indiana Attorney General’s Office; Indiana Legal Services; Child Advocates; the Indiana Department of Child Services; and the Community Justice & Mediation Center, as well as in the chambers of circuit and district court judges, bankruptcy and appellate court judges, and Indiana Supreme Court justices.

Pro bono projects: Finally, IU Maurer also provides services to our communities through purely pro bono projects and collaborations. The Incarcerated Individuals Legal Assistance Project (IILAP), the LGBTQ+ Project and the Protective Order Project (POP) help address the unmet needs of Indiana’s LGBTQ+ community, incarcerated populations and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and harassment. POP, for example, currently has more than 100 law student volunteers who work with licensed attorneys, providing assistance in Greene, Owen, Morgan, Brown, Monroe and Lawrence counties. Since its founding in 1989, POP has helped hundreds of vulnerable individuals obtain protective orders. IILAP has similarly had more than 100 volunteer students since August 2022, and on more than 100 occasions in that time span has provided invaluable research on legal materials that are inaccessible to incarcerated individuals. Contributing their intellect while gaining essential legal skills, IU Maurer students contributed 13,952 pro bono hours during the 2022-23 academic year to these projects and other organizations and populations in need of legal research, referrals and documentation.

The sheer number of opportunities, partnerships, students and hours devoted to underserved legal communities in our state is impressive. Impossible to fully capture, but far more inspiring, is the substance of what our students have achieved. The successes of the Habeas Practicum provide excellent examples of the professional-level skills IU Maurer’s students attain and the benefits their clients receive from working with the law school’s programs.

Habeas Practicum in focus: In the time since the Habeas Practicum was founded, no less than nine writs of habeas corpus have either been granted or denials of writs reversed. The first of those successes (Stitts v. Wilson, S.D. Ind. April 2, 2014) resulted in a writ from the bench after a hearing before the Southern District of Indiana (after previous decisions by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversing earlier denials of writs of habeas corpus). The petitioner in that case has enjoyed nearly 10 years of freedom as a result. In 2019, IU Maurer student Michael Smyth argued before the Indiana Supreme Court in Shaw v. State, 130 N.E.3d 91 (Ind. 2019). The Habeas Project’s involvement in that case resulted in overturning a 20-year-old conviction. Michael Ausbrook, the Habeas Project’s professor and supervising attorney, said of Smyth’s performance: “It was just nice to be Ted Williams’ batting instructor (referring to the famous baseball player). Watching Smyth was like watching Paul Clement as a 2L.” In another notable victory, Habeas Project student Alex Dowland argued before the 7th Circuit in Dunn v. Neal, 44 F. 4th 696 (7th Cir. 2022). That case also resulted in an exoneration for the project’s client. The case was later highlighted on the podcast “Wrongful Conviction” in March.

Ausbrook said of the Habeas Project: “Over the decade the Habeas class has existed, the students — and I do mean the students — have freed three people and achieved one outright exoneration. They have undone half a millennium of undue sentencing years. That’s more time than between today and the founding of the Lost Colony of Roanoke in 1585. And in a decade, I am told, the students’ work may have gotten more actual relief for people than any other program in the country.” Remarking on the benefits to IU Maurer students, Ausbrook went on to say: “The students’ work has also changed both Indiana state law and federal habeas law. Eight students have presented oral arguments in the 7th Circuit and the Indiana Supreme Court. And there are more on the way. I am told by students themselves that their participation in the class has significantly contributed to job opportunities after law school, especially clerkships, both federal and state.”

IU Maurer’s commitment to serving the public: The IU Maurer School of Law’s experiential opportunities exemplify our profound commitment to public service, to the public interest and to serving the state of Indiana. Our diverse range of clinics, practica, externships and pro bono projects offer IU Maurer students invaluable hands-on experiences while making significant contributions to underserved communities. The success stories emerging from these programs, exemplified herein by the Habeas Practicum, are a testament to the impact the IU Maurer School of Law has in our Indiana. These initiatives aid people who would otherwise not have access to legal services and shape the legal profession’s future by nurturing skilled, compassionate lawyers. The accomplishments of IU Maurer’s students — providing thousands of hours of legal assistance to individuals at highly vulnerable moments in their lives — highlight the importance of legal education imbued with service opportunities.•


Christiana Ochoa is the dean and Herman B Wells endowed professor of Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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