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Professional Foundations: An Innovative Component of the First-Year Curriculum
When the UND School of Law's Class of 2016 begins its studies this fall, it will have the distinction of being the first class to experience the benefits of a newly reconfigured and expanded first-year curriculum. The Faculty adopted these changes in pursuit of the goals expressed in the UND School of Law Curriculum Mission Statement, with its overriding objective "to produce competent and ethical lawyers with entry-level proficiency and professional self-sufficiency in any setting . . . ."
A centerpiece of these changes will be a new two-credit class called Professional Foundations, to be offered in Spring 2014. This innovative course will focus student learning squarely on developing the foundations of professional persona. It is especially intended to complement the first semester's primary emphasis on thinking, writing, and researching about the law. Thus, Professional Foundations will create an intentional semester-long space, outside of any particular substantive law setting, in which students will be expressly encouraged to cultivate a reflective mindset and the habits of being that are vital to the development of professional identity and the exercise of sound professional judgment. It will do so by exploring the characteristics of a "good lawyer" and asking students to engage with the meaning of that concept in their own lives and careers, using weekly interactive exercises and writing assignments to build toward a reflective course portfolio. To those ends, students will be given repeated opportunities to either work in role or to discuss realistic lawyering situations requiring them to both (1) act as a fiduciary responsible for the welfare of others and (2) define and feel for themselves what it means to square personal and professional values. The critical course goal is to enhance the students' ability to be personally reflective and mindful of their behavior in various professional settings. The course will not be an abstract examination of professionalism, but an opportunity for students to ask themselves "What would I do and how would I feel as a lawyer in that situation." A subsidiary course goal, and a natural offshoot of the first, is to help students envision a career path that suits their sensibilities and aspirations.
Another unusual feature of this thirteen-session course is who will be teaching it — a team of nearly the entire Faculty will bring their collective experience and insights to this exciting educational venture. Professors Patti Alleva and Michael McGinniss serve as the inaugural Course Coordinators, charged with developing the course and working with faculty team members to achieve a compelling whole. The varied line-up of professors will introduce first-year students to more than first-year faculty and help to ensure a diverse educational experience with contributions made from multiple perspectives and areas of expertise.
As currently configured, the course learning goals revolve around exploring and experiencing a number of highly important professional qualities, including dealing with unpredictability, confronting mistakes, displaying courage, acting diligently, being empathic, maintaining integrity under pressure, and cultivating sympathetic detachment. The first five sessions (Weeks 1-5) will concentrate on course basics, transitioning from the first to the second semesters, and fundamentals of professional role and identity. The next three sessions (Weeks 6-8) provide the platform for students to explore and personalize these fundamentals in a variety of lawyer-client relationships. The next four sessions (Weeks 9-12) will facilitate that exploration and personalization in a variety of practice environments. The last session (Week 13) will allow for a retrospective look at lessons learned and provide the opportunity for synthesis and taking stock of what each student's professional future may hold.
"Offering a course like Professional Foundations in the first year that is primarily devoted to issues of professional role, identity, and judgment, and provides opportunities for new law students to both reflect and act upon them in supervised educational environments, is an exciting advance and a sizable step towards our aim to produce practice-ready graduates," Dean Kathryn Rand explained. "That almost our entire faculty will be devoting extra time and creative energy to this project is a testament to our collective dedication to providing a first-rate education for our students and to serving the State of North Dakota through innovative teaching in the service of professional ideals that will ultimately benefit the people of this state, region, and nation."