By Whitney Heins
You know how it is.
Every law student—past and present—can talk about those times when they felt stressed, overwhelmed, and overworked. But underneath the thousands of pages of reading and dozens of assignments on their plates lies the real reason why most students enter law school in the first place: to help people.
Kris Tobin’s Legal Research II class uncovers this reason early by giving first-year students the chance to help real people in the real world with their work. Through a partnership with the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office (CLO), Tobin’s students research dozens of issues that are then applied to real cases that ultimately improve peoples’ lives.
“I want my students to have the experience where they can figure out what the practice of law really is,” said Tobin, assistant professor and reference/faculty services librarian in the UT College of Law. “I feel really blessed to be able to help students grapple with a real-life project.”
Most law students don’t encounter real-world experience in the first year of school, if at all.
“This kind of exposure is rare and unheard of,” said Tobin.
Tobin got the idea for a first-year experiential learning class nearly five years ago. When she approached Brad Morgan, UT’s pro bono coordinator, for help, he was immediately excited.
It was Morgan’s strong belief in the power lawyers have to influence people’s lives that drew him away from a large firm to academia so he could instill this importance in the next generation of lawyers.
“Often as a law student or lawyer, we get caught up with going through the motions—billing hours, moving from one file to the next—but at the end of the day, behind every file and every task in the file, even if it is as small a piece as a research memo, is a person,” Morgan said. “And the work that is being done on that file is being done in furtherance of helping that person.”
Morgan worked to connect Tobin’s students with community partners in need. After hearing a WUOT-FM interview with Mark Stephens, the public defender for the Sixth Judicial District of Tennessee, the two knew they had found the perfect partner. Stephens, who admits to stacks of issues needing research on his shelf dating back twenty-five years, was happy to have his load lightened and more of his clients helped while exposing students to legal experience and “what it’s like for a client to have access to justice, or the lack thereof.”
“This class is, in a way, a reality test for students. It can really shape their learning experiences over the next three years,” said Stephens, who couldn’t help comparing the class to his own experience as a law student. “I wasted two and a half years of law school because I didn’t get the point of the theory. It wasn’t until I took the clinic in my ninth quarter and a real, live, breathing person was sitting before me that I connected the dots.”
The students have helped countless clients by researching more than forty-five legal issues for CLO cases, dealing with topics like expungement, gang and school zone enhancements, and divorce.
In one case, an attorney requested research to help a client who had blacked out and potentially caused a car accident. “He is diabetic and hadn’t eaten anything that day, and I believe that he had a hypoglycemic shock/coma,” reads the request. “Some research suggests that Prozac (which was in his system) can cause/worsen hypoglycemia in diabetics…What I need to know is if someone is under the influence of a substance that wouldn’t affect the ability of an ‘ordinary’ person to drive, but it affects this individual’s ability to drive because of their known medical condition, is that sufficient for a DUI conviction?”
After the students research the topic, they present a draft of the legal memo to the CLO attorneys, who challenge and question them and offer feedback. The students then bolster and revise the memos for their final draft. The students’ legal memos are added to a database so the information is at attorneys’ fingertips.
“They really get a taste of what it’s like working with legal colleagues,” said Tobin. “This class helps them think about things earlier. Legal research can be very esoteric. It’s not until they apply their legal research to real issues that it all comes together intuitively.”
Tobin and Morgan remember one class specifically when a student’s eyes widened and he asked, “You mean, this isn’t a hypothetical? This is real?” The ability to do work for more than a grade strengthens the students’ initial motivation to be lawyers and instills an early appreciation of pro bono service.
“Professor Tobin’s project found a way to get first-year students involved in ‘real’ legal work that not only benefited us as students but made a significant impact in an individual’s life,” said Shelisha Steele, who now works as a law clerk in Atlanta. “My experience overall has not only helped me develop as an attorney but also as a person. I intend to continue to provide pro bono services throughout my legal career.”
Tennessee alone has a million residents each year who aren’t able to afford meaningful access to a lawyer. For this reason, the Tennessee Supreme Court has an aspirational goal for each lawyer in the state to provide fifty hours of pro bono service per year, an expectation imprinted on UT’s aspiring lawyers.
“Students walk away with an appreciation of the service they have done for the Community Law Office and the clients,” said Tobin. “And they learn that when they become practicing lawyers, they’re expected to help less fortunate and marginalized clients.”
Tobin and Morgan believe UT is the only law school including experiential learning in the first year, but the idea is catching on. They have presented the curriculum at several conferences and workshops and written a chapter for a forthcoming book on experiential learning in the law school curriculum.
And they are undoubtedly helping to shape the next generation of lawyers who will speak of law school as well worth their time.
“I really want our students to appreciate where they are and what they can give to others,” said Tobin.