Instructors: William Mercer and Doug Blaze
Authored by Dr. Lisa Fall, Associate Professor of Advertising and Public Relations and Noah Mayhew, Senior in Public Relations
In partnership with public defenders from Knox County and the Eastern District of Tennessee, the Law 948 public defender externship gives students the opportunity to get a taste of life on the job – all while focusing on service learning.
“It is our goal in the class not to just have someone in there as an assistant, but someone who is licensed to limited practice under the supervision of a practicing attorney,” said Dr. William Mercer, one of two professors who directs the externship; Dean Douglas Blaze also teaches the course.
Students spend an average of 20 hours per week conducting legal research, arguing motions, conducting jail visits and “just doing what lawyers do.” A student’s daily activities depend entirely on the needs of the court, which can differ dramatically depending on the office in which that student works. Among other things, students confront the real-life client obstacles. “Many times when people end up in court, it’s not just bad actor, but things like poverty, substance abuse, mental illness…tend to have the same people back in court over and over again,” Mercer said.
In addition to student and client outcomes, service learning classes such as LAW 948 seek to benefit the community at large. “Students work in offices that are chronically busy and understaffed. To the extent that we can provide individuals who can help try to keep this going and try to provide as good a representation for people accused of crimes as possible is a benefit to the community,” Mercer said. “I think there’s also a benefit in the sense that we have a major first class law school here in Knoxville and to the extent that we can expose our students to the local Bar [association] and try to get them to stay here — I think it’s a good thing.”
Dean Blaze added, “This course reflects the great strength of our law school – giving our student a chance to apply the theory they learn in the classroom in a real world practice setting.”
Another integral part of the service learning academic experience is reflection. During class time, students discuss history, cases and trends in the American legal system and reflect upon those implications for their externship experiences. The course also requires biweekly journal entries and regular meetings with an instructor; these assignments are intended to help the students make meaning of those experiences.
“We try to connect what they’re seeing to larger critiques of the justice system so that they can understand that their job is more than just to keep the plate spinning, so to speak; we want them to see that they are part of a pretty big machine and that they have certain responsibilities,” said Mercer. “Lawyers are not just bureaucrats filling out forms. They are officers of the court.”
Above all, this is an experience designed to give students the opportunity to make a mark on the Knoxville community, facilitating a higher quality of legal care and enriching themselves as lawyers. “The course is valuable because it attempts to translate what we do in law school into what they will do as practicing attorneys and to do it in a way that not only reinforces academic and technical skills we try to teach but also to reinforce the larger moral, ethical and philosophical obligations that all attorneys have,” Mercer said. “Some of the students that I’ve had in our program have been very thoughtful about their experiences. They have demonstrated some really unique ways of going out and participating but they also really, genuinely reflect on the good and the bad of it in ways that I think makes the course really useful.”
And, it’s just as gratifying for the professors. “I love teaching and I love being a lawyer. This course let’s me do both,” explained Dean Blaze.