The Legal Profession

Law schools have an obligation not only to guide students to doctrinal competency, but also to prepare them for the practice of law. The Legal Profession course puts the study of the law into practical context through self-discovery, team interaction, and professional networking.

Data Shows Students Lack Adaptability
But It Can Be Developed
Formative Feedback Is Worth the Cost
Course Description

Every year, more than 45,000 law students in the United States take a mandatory course in professional responsibility. Despite its prevalence, the course is often viewed as dreary and uninteresting, unsatisfactory to both student and teacher. And because it is typically an upper-level course, students complete their first year with little or no foundation for the ethical principles that guide their profession and their career choices.

Against this background, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law redesigned its legal profession course beginning in the spring semester of 2009. In addition to the typical study of the “law of lawyering,” the course helps students identify the career that will best suit them, based on the discovery of their personal and professional strengths, attributes, and values.

To accomplish these goals, Indiana Law’s Legal Profession course differs from other courses in several significant ways:

  • It is a mandatory first-year course in the spring semester, with four credit hours instead of the usual two hours.
  • It goes beyond the review of the ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility by putting the rules in context of practice in numerous settings.
  • It draws from the experiences of practitioners and upper-level students as a means of guiding students to the career choice that is right for them.
  • It uses personality and motivational assessment tools to help students identify their strengths, opportunities for development, and values and help align them with potential career opportunities.
  • It introduces students to real-life work settings by putting them into team-based projects; assessment includes both peer feedback (360° Review) and overall team grades.
  • It advances professional skills through a 1L competency model that focuses on active listening, empathy, self-awareness, asking questions, presentations, and resilience.
  • It uses outcome-based metrics to inform and influence future course design.

Indiana Law’s course on the legal profession is taught in this way because it is rooted in scientific data gathered from several sources, including the school’s Center on the Global Legal Profession; Indiana University’s annual Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE); and a landmark 2007 report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching titled Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law.

Among other findings, this research shows that the emphasis on professional ethics and values is largely absent from the first-year curriculum, which has the unintended effect of signaling marginal importance of these attributes to a lawyer’s long-term success. In addition, upper-level courses are less likely to include substantive discussions of professional ethics and values than first-year courses. Finally, the data show that lawyers who have achieved great success possess not only a deep understanding of substantive law, but also traits such as character, judgment, integrity, communication, and empathy.

The course attempts to integrate and model all three of the Carnegie apprenticeships.  First, under the cognitive/analytical apprenticeship, the course identifies both the duties and areas of discretion that lawyer have under the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. The course focuses heavily on decision-making in areas of broad discretion. Second, under the expert/skills apprenticeship, students are obtaining skills and experience in both collaborative and self-directed learning, which are essential skills of a 21st century legal professional. Third, the professional ethics/identify apprenticeship is targeted through the course subject matter and the inclusion of many practicing lawyers (approximately 35) who visit the Law School to give lunchtime talks on their careers and enable students to conduct on-site informational interviews.

Course Design

The Maurer School of Law’s legal profession course comprises several complementary approaches:

  • The substantive law of professional responsibility is taught through review of the ABA Code, case studies, and instructor experiences. This aspect of the course is often placed in context, with supplementary information about particular law firms’ culture and work environment. This topic is explored through lectures and Socratic dialogue with students.
  • At the beginning of the fall semester, all first-year students are assigned to practice groups of six to eight persons. The practice groups are led by practice group advisors (PGAs), second- and third-year students recruited for their empathy and leadership ability. During the fall semester, PGAs help their practice groups become acclimated to the law school experience by providing study tips, networking opportunities, and moral support. During the second semester, the PGAs and their practice groups continue to function independently of the legal profession course but also become working teams within the course. For example, the PGAs organize mock interview sessions that give students the opportunity to gain experience by networking in a supportive environment. The interviews are recorded and feedback is provided within the context of the legal profession course.
  • In 2009, Indiana Law created a competency model (the Effective Lawyer Profile) that identified 23 success factors. We then created selected a series of assessment tools that map onto these success factors. All students now complete this assessment tool, which provides baseline information on behaviorally based workplace competencies and achievement motivation.  To narrow the focus in view of the time available, the list of competencies is limited to roughly six in the 1L year: Active Listening, Empathy, Self-Awareness, Presentation Skills, Asking Questions, and Resilience.
  • Because the workplace itself requires team interaction, students in the Legal Profession course are placed into teams coincident with their practice groups. The teams complete various assignments calling for reflection and analysis, often in the context of the lawyer-competency rubrics. A typical team assignment: Watch a video in which a practitioner describes his experience litigating a complex case, and identify specific instances in the video when he used the attributes from the umbrella categories listed above (“At 38:07, the lawyer demonstrated interpersonal skills by saying that ‘everyone [on a jury] is someone’s father, brother, mother, sister. . . . Try to remember they are just people’”).
  • Career Choices sessions bring lawyers to the Law School to speak to students in the legal profession course about their work, including their substantive area of practice. Students must attend at least three Career Choices sessions as part of the legal profession course requirement. Career Choices speakers often invite students to individual or small-group informational interviews or dinners during their visit to the school.
  • In the JD-GPS assignment, students conduct independent research to help them learn about the context in which lawyers work while reflecting on their own potential fit within the profession. To do this, students interview at least five law school graduates in person, at least two of whom they don’t already know. Based on their interviews, students write a paper of between 1,750 and 2,400 words covering two areas: (1) what they learned about the work undertaken by law graduates and (2) whether and how the lessons from the interview have shaped the students’ thinking about their own career choices. Students are encouraged to draw on the core competencies of lawyers discussed in class when structuring their interviews and writing their papers. Of course, the interviews provide students with an additional benefit: a basis for a future networking relationship with the interviewees.

Course Development.  The course was conceived in the fall of 2006 through an ad hoc committee on professionalism created by then Dean Lauren Robel, now Provost of Indiana University. The committee created several iterations of course proposals, the final one approved by the faculty in April 2007. A beta version of the course was taught in the fall of 2007 (to a single section of 1Ls) and feedback was collected. The full version of the course launched in the spring of 2009. In 2010, we scuttled the use of the traditional professional responsibility case book and started using materials by John Steele, an expert practitioner in this arena. The materials have rich hypotheticals that provide the basis for teaching legal ethics experientially. Every year we solicit and carefully read student evaluations and conduct focus groups to make changes and improvements to the courses. (An example of the re-tooling memo is available.)

Lessons Learned.  This course has provided us with many lessons. Foremost, it is critical that faculty effectively communicate the course goals to students. Both in subject matter and teaching methods, this course is different from other 1L classes. In the minds of students, different is not better. In the absence of a compelling “why” explanation that is continually reinforced, student resistance will mount. Second, to obtain student buy-in, the course has to be well-organized and well-executed. It is very hard to do this the first time through. Third, this course requires collaboration and teamwork. We did not underestimate the importance of these competencies and administrators. We have grown as a result.

Teaching Methods

Students complete the assignments described above under “Course Description” throughout the semester. Their grade is determined as follows:

10%     Individual participation, including attendance in class and at Career Choices presentations
20%     JD – GPS reflective essay
15%     Team presentations
20%     Teamwork:

  1. 360° reviews
  2. Class participation through teams
  3. Team charter exercise

35%     Final examination


This course offers the instructors a wonderful opportunity to grow as professionals and witness the growth of their students in new and exciting ways. If you want to teach this course, or a course like it, ask us for our materials. We are happy to provide access to the following: the original committee report, the final course proposal, the various permutations of the syllabus, our “retooling” memos, our LSSSE scores (how we measure our success), the Effective Lawyer Profile, assignment memoranda, examples of presentation problems, a debriefing on the personality/achievement motivation assessment, and access to our websites. In addition, John Steele’s Legal Profession materials, which the Indiana Law faculty has edited and contributed to, are organized as a teaching packet that is ready for adoption at another law school.


As a participant in LSSSE, the Maurer School of Law has access to its findings, which provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of the legal profession course. With 90 questions covering the students’ educational experience over the past seven years and a response rate of 70% among 1Ls, the survey findings are reliable to a high degree of accuracy.

The LSSSE findings confirm that Indiana Law’s Legal Profession course is making an impact. Consider the improvement in mean scores reported by first-year students between 2008 (before the course was offered) and 2010. While these questions address the overall law school experience, the only first-year course offering that changed between 2008 and 2010 was the addition of the Legal Profession course.

Law school contributes to . . .



working effectively with others



developing a personal code of values and ethics



an emphasis on encouraging the ethical practice of law



developing clearer career goals



1 = very little
2 = some
3= quite a bit
4 = very much
* = significantly higher score than other LSSSE reporting schools