Thursday, April 26, 2012

A New Tool for Law Student Professional Development

Pizza-boxesIn retrospect, it looks pretty simple:  (1) find a convenient time for 1Ls, (2) provide pizza, (3) invite successful lawyers to talk about their careers, (4) have law faculty gently moderate, and (5) implement a modest attendence requirement tied to a 1L substantive course.

This is the format for Indiana Law's Career Choices program, which is an important part of our 1L Legal Professions curriculum.   The goal of the Career Choices program is to provide students with a more realistic and structured view of modern law practice. The 2011-12 edition, which concluded earlier this month, consisted of 45 lawyer speakers spread over 24 lunchtime programs.

Why does this matter?  If students have better information and have a broader view of the profession--created through a balanced and well structured programming--they can make sense of the world more quickly and in turn make better decisions related to their own professional development.  Immediate benefits include:

  • Shedding stereotypes of what lawyers do--often stereotypes created by the media and pop culture).  Almost everything looks different from far away--sometimes better, sometimes worse.  Although the up-close view takes time and effort to acquire, it is the view needed for reliable decisionmaking.  
  • Developing a more sophisticated vocabulary that enables students to adopt and mimic the language of practicing lawyers.  This subtly impresses and flatters practicing lawyers.  It signals engagement.  And it opens doors.
  • Broadening minds to consider practice areas, internships, and training opportunties that students would otherwise overlook.
  • Improving student time allocation.  And time is students' single greatest asset!

Because the benefits of better decisions compound over time, there is no better time to start than the 1L year.  Over the medium to long term, this simple action can elevate the entire law school community.

The Career Choices Program evolved over a period of years.   It is only one piece of Indiana Law's 1L Legal Professions curriculum, but it is critically important to professional identity formation.  Cf. Sullivan et al., Educating Lawyers (2007) [aka The Carnegie Report] (discussing legal education's neglect of the professional identity apprenticeship). 

The value of the Career Choices program can be separated into two buckets:

  1. What the program looks like today--let's call it Career Choices 4.0
  2. The evolutionary process that produced the current program. 

Career Choices 4.0

The success of the Indiana Career Choices program is the result of the joint efforts of the Indiana Law faculty, our two deans of students, and our world-class Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD).  Indiana Law's OCPD (staff photos below) deserves special credit.  Among their many other responsibilities, they handle all the complicated event planning logistics so that it is an enjoyable experience for both lawyers and students.  According to Law School Survey of Student Engagement data, Indiana Law's OCPD is objectively one of the best career services offices in the nation, at least as judged by law student respondents.

In 2011-12, the Career Choices program consisted of 24 programs featuring 45 law school graduates (approximately 85% Indiana Law alumni).  It kicked off on the first day of class in January.  It was then followed by a program virtually every Thursday and Friday for the next twelve weeks, excluding spring break.  Career Choice forums are scheduled well in advance and space is limited (capped at ~40 to 100 student depending upon room size).  To attend, students sign-up through OCPD using Symplicity, a widely used career services software.

Career Choice events were typically organized around practice settings (i.e., small firms, big firms, in-house lawyers, personal injury lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders, state agency lawyers, public interest lawyers, business and nonprofit executives, etc.) and substantive areas (IP, sports and entertainment law, international law, family law, bankruptcy, etc.)  An ideal panel would be one where the practitioners moderately disagree with each other -- this is why we like having more than one lawyer in at a time.  When lawyers disagree, students have to engage their minds in order to make sense of the differing perspectives.

The lynchpin of the Career Choices program, however, is its integration into the Indiana Law's Legal Professions course, which is required 4-credit course taught in the second semester of the 1L year.  The course covers traditional professional responsibility and the law of lawyering.  But it also focuses on the structure of the legal profession itself.  The course is explicitly designed to get our students to think about their future careers in a realistic and structured way.  Course requirements include:

  • Five in-person informational interviews
  • Team based projects
  • Personality and motivation asseessments
  • 360 degree peer feedback
  • An end-of-semester reflective essay.

Career Choices is another required element.  Every 1L is required to attend at least three Career Choice events.  At Indiana Law, we tend to focus on data so we can track evidence of progress, or lack thereof.  A ID scanner (placed between the door and the pizza) is how we track attendance.  It is very fast.

This year, we have 230+ 1L students spread across four sections of the Legal Profession class.  The average 1L attended 5.5 Career Choice events.  Well over 60% of the class attended more than the mandatory three sessions, which is pretty remarkable.  1Ls are a notoriously harried group of students.  Every hour spent in a non-mandatory activity is one hour less that can be devoted to beating the 1L curve.   Ask any law school career services professsional how difficult it is to get students to invest in voluntary professional development -- 600 hours in a single semester for 1L  is a miraculous feat.  Now that learning is compounding for the students' and, indirectly, IU Law's benefit.

Here is another statistic:   we served 2,800 slices over the course of the semester.   1L students are busy and relatively cash-strapped.  By putting these events at a time when students would ordinarily break for lunch, we are making it easy for them to give the programs a try.  For the last several years, an alumnus has paid for the pizzas.  He believes it is a small price to pay to get students in the door.  No studennt learning can take place if students never show up.  

When guest speakers are available to stay for dinner, the same alumnus also pays for dinners for speakers and three to five students.  Over the years, I have attended roughly two dozen of these meals.  Many times students tell me that the insights shared over these dinners are among the most memorable and fulfilling learning experiences of their 1L year. 

The Evolution from 1.0 to 4.0

Remember that I said that the Career Choices formula looks so simple "in retrospect."  

The most important lesson we learned from Career Choices experience is that any significant success in programmatic or curricular changes is going to require several iteratives until the program's progress is reasonably near its ambitious goal.  Fortunately, we were sufficiently committed to the mission that we built feedback loops and retooled accordingly.  Here is some the trial and error:

  • Respect student preferences. During the 1.0 version, we had four mandatory sessions at 4:30 on Thursday afternoons -- and as a result, we were leaning heavily into a headwind.  A minority of students resented the imposition on their time; and this negativity affected the general mood of the students, which created an uphill battle for even the finest guest speakers.  It is easy to conclude what students "ought" to value.  But such judgments don't improve the situation at hand.  The smart person accepts; the idiot insists.
  • Impact of size on participation.  We learned through experience that 1Ls go silent when they are in a big, full auditorium.  Even the gunners shut down.  Holding speaker quality constant, smaller groups and more intimate venues produced dramatically more student engagement.   This meant that four or six Career Choice events, though cheaper and easier to manage, was not going to work.   The program had to be bigger to be successful.
  • Choice matters.  Students can have pretty fixed ideas on who is worth listening to.  This is a constraint.  But when students can exercise some choice on speakers, they show up with a positive attitude and higher levels of curiosity.  These positive experiences bring them back voluntarily --now, voluntary participation is well beyond the minimum.  The choice created the way for buy-in.
  • Timing really matters.  Pizza is not enough to get students to give up a lunch hour.  The winning combination is lunch plus content plus a time period when students are not scramblng to read for class.  Moving from Wednesdays to Thursdays was huge for student participation--albeit it was less convenient for faculty.  We learned that faculty need to bend as much or more than students.
  • Faculty involvement. Faculty involvement (or lack of involvement) sends a strong message to students on what is important.  Career Choices has been a required element of the 1L Legal Professions curriculum since 2009.  But this year, Legal Professions instructors served as the moderators.  This enables us to bring the practitioner themes back into the classroom and tie them into our discussions of legal ethics and professional development.  Many times faculty attended just to hear the speakers. If I am in town, I am there.  Students noticed.

Last week our OCPD/instructor team debriefed on the 4.0 version.  This discussion was substantially informed by student feedback.   Some improvements for version 5.0 include (1) a better mix of young versus old lawyers, as the best panels had often someone five years out with someone 20 to 30 years out, (2) a more standardized format that permits lawyers to tell their stories but also ties their experiences into specific themes in the course, and (3) careful attention to diversity, something that our students really care about.

Finally, the biggest surprise our Career Choices program has been the reaction of its guest speakers.  Although a typical guest speaker's day might include a lunch-time program, meeting with OCPD and faculty, two hour long informational interviews with students, and a long dinner, invariably the lawyers have more energy at the end of the day than the beginning.  If you think about it, it makes sense.  Lawyers seldom have a time to reflect on their careers to discern meaning and priorities.  Career Choices provides them an entire day devoted to just that.  Knowing how lawyers react to the program makes it much easier to ask them to participate. 

At Indiana Law, the success of Career Choices has enabled us to consider more ambitious goals for the future.  5.0 will be better.

[posted by Bill Henderson]

Innovations in legal education, New and Noteworthy | Permalink


I have long admired Indiana's Legal Professions class, and now I am even more jealous. This is a fantastic and very thoughtful addition to that program. I may need to emulate some of your success at my own institution. I think it's a great benefit for law students.

Posted by: William Gallagher | Apr 30, 2012 10:35:18 AM

Post a comment