July 12, 2004

Law school workshops earn ABA honor

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Development workshops for law school students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale that focus on professionalism, ethics and legal practice are receiving national recognition.

The American Bar Association is recognizing the law school's Professional Development Workshop Series as one of two recipients of this year's E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Awards. The annual award, established in 1991, recognizes projects that contribute to professionalism among attorneys. The other recipient is Wake Forest University School of Law.

Achieving excellence in graduate and professional programs is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence ThroughCommitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

The recognition is an "outstanding honor" for the law school, said Dean Peter C. Alexander, who will accept the award during the ABA's annual conference Aug. 5-10 in Atlanta.

"It's a great honor for the School of Law and for the faculty members who have put a lot of time and thought into creating the professional development series," he said.

The mandatory workshops are primarily for first-year law school students, but there also are programs for second- and third-year students.

The program, which just completed its fourth year, "gets students to think of themselves as legal professionals from the very first day they arrive here, so they don't wait until they have passed the bar exam and are licensed to think of themselves as having obligations to the profession and the public," said Alexander.

"We like our students to think that they have those obligations from the moment they enter the SIU School of Law," he said.

A number of law schools in the nation talk about providing professionalism training for students, "but very few schools have formal programs," he noted.

"And I doubt there is any school that has as creative and thoughtful a program as ours, which is perhaps why the ABA recognized us this year," he said.

The award includes a $3,500 prize, which Alexander hopes to put back into the development program.

"I'm really excited that the ABA has recognized the significance of our program," said associate law professor Alice Noble-Allgire. "It is very gratifying to have the ABA, which represents the practice of law, saying, 'Yes, this is what law students need to know.'"

The 19 workshops focus on an array of topics dealing with competence building, ethics and professionalism, and career development.

Competence building includes ways for students to improve time management, preparing for and taking law school exams, and improving oral arguments in appellate and trial courts.

Ethics and professionalism workshops include "Professional Responsibility Day," where law students and SIUC medical school students discuss hypothetical situations that raise critical issues in both professions. There also are discussions on expected professional behavior, civility, and advocacy. First-year students will define their understanding of professionalism by drafting a class statement of professional commitment, and participate in a formal induction ceremony.

Career development workshops help students start thinking about legal employment opportunities, writing resumes, and basic job interviewing skills.

The program is designed to expose students to what will be expected of them professionally in a "very structured and systematic way," Noble-Allgire said.

Many students are first-generation law students and college graduates, and have not had a legal background.

"They know the idea of being a lawyer but they don't really know what the profession is about, and this is what this program is designed to do," she said.

There was a time 30 years ago when law schools primarily focused on academics, helping students learn how to think critically about problems. It was then left to law firms to provide professional training for graduates, said law professor R.J. Robertson, Jr.

The market is different, and law firms now do not invest that kind of training in graduates.

"We thought we could begin to do it by getting to first-year students very early on in their law school career and try to instill in them some values they can develop as they go through law school," he said.

The program continues to evolve, and Robertson views it as a work-in-progress.

"There are a number of things we would like to do in terms of helping students with skills such as being part-time law clerks," he said. "We would like to incorporate something like law office management when they are third-year students because many of them go out into small firms and very shortly they will be expected to bring clients in and help in managing the business."