This week, I write to share a program, the Mentor Externship Program at University of St. Thomas School of Law, that I have successfully emulated at two other law schools.  I am not the only admirer. St Thomas’ version of the program was awarded the American Bar Association’s E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award, and a similar program (modeled on St. Thomas’ program) is part of a comprehensive professionalism curriculum, created by my former colleagues at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law, also received a Gambrell Professionalism Award.

Every entering student at St. Thomas is matched with a mentor who is either a judge or practices in an area of law of interest to the student. The goals of this program include fostering professionalism, developing students’ interpersonal skills, and deepening students’ self-directed learning skills.

First-year students focus on developing good relationships with their mentors and logging 18 hours of fieldwork. Students receive guidance on professionalism, communication, time management, and making the most of mentor relationships through programs held throughout the year. The first year has no seminar component, and no academic credit is earned.

Second- and third-year students complete 30 hours of fieldwork per year while maintaining good relationships with their mentor. In addition, students take a required one credit seminar each year. The seminars are taught by full- and part-time faculty. These faculty mentors teach up to 16 students in small group classes and assist students in meeting their self-defined objectives throughout the year.

Fieldwork experiences are combined with reflective writing to promote students’ self-reflection skills. For more information, try this link; click on each of the sub-links.

Having served as the dean at two law schools that have implemented similar programs, I have now heard from dozens of students who regarded their mentoring experiences as among their best experiences as law students. Many have reported discovering new potential areas of practice or discovering that an area of law they thought was attractive was not. A good number have secured summer and even permanent jobs as a result of their mentoring experiences.

Civility (or its absence in our day-to-day discourse) has become a topic of great national concern. A November 2017 study found that nearly 75% of those surveyed completely or mostly agree that incivility in this country has risen to crisis levels and 60% of those surveyed tuned out political conversations that had a negative tone or otherwise lacked civility.

The legal profession also seems to have a civility problem. A 2015 Above the Law article asserts “It is no secret that civility is at an all-time low among lawyers” and “we need to stop training lawyers to be jerks.” Lawyers need to learn to disagree more respectfully.  The courts seem to be concerned. In September, the Federal Judicial Center and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sponsored a “symposium” entitled, “The Nature and Practice of Civil Discourse.”

Boston University School of Law has implemented its own initiative aimed at addressing civility in law practice that it has entitled “Critical Conversations.” BU Dean Maureen A. O’Rourke explained that Critical Conversations is “a series in which the entire community is invited to meet to talk about difficult issues.” She reported that “The series has inspired collegial and professional conversations about difficult topics.” BU Law’s Brenda Hernandez, Associate Director for Diversity & Inclusion, wrote me that Critical Conversations invites participation from students, faculty, and staff and has tackled difficult and complex subjects such as Privilege, Faith and the Law; Ableism – Perspectives from the Deaf Community; Class and Puerto Rican identity. BU Law’s first Difficult Conversation session in 2018 will focus on Title IX and the #MeToo movement.

As future lawyers, our students need to be able to discuss even controversial topics effectively and civilly. BU’s model is worth considering.