Semester Away Program provides real world opportunity

By Gus Bode

Brad Evetts is enrolling in the SIU School of Law’s new program hoping to gain some actual experience in the workplace.

Evetts, a third-year law student, and one other student will work within the School of Law’s Health Law and Policy Semester Away Program in Springfield at the start of the fall 2011 semester.

“This isn’t something all law students, in general, have the opportunity to do,” Evetts said. “By our faculty thinking outside the box, they were really looking to the law students coming out with a competitive edge.”

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The program provides students with an opportunity to gain experience as well as work with a professional attorney, said Eugene Basanta, a professor in the school of law.

“There are interest groups and major trade associations with headquarters in Springfield, so the opportunity for practical experience is richer and broader in Springfield,” Basanta said.

He said the concept behind the program is to give students opportunities to work in an environment where they gain experience in an actual work setting.

Evetts said he will primarily be editing possible draft legislation with the legal services development coordinator and revising state regulations within the Illinois Department of Aging in Springfield.

“It gives (students) the opportunity to develop work skills, work with people and adds an element of making networking contacts in the field,” Evetts said.

Evetts said he understands how important real world experience can be. And in the past, he said he worked with Land of Lincoln, a legal aid service in Carbondale which assists low-income individuals with civil matters. His experience with the non-profit organization helped put in perspective the value of what the Semester Away program offers. Evetts also said the school and professors went out of their way to set up this program.

Michele Mekel, an assistant professor of law who also serves as the program’s director, said students can use the work experience as a resume builder.

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“Students don’t really get an opportunity to apply their skills and see if they’ve mastered (the skills) until they get into a real-world situation,” Mekel said. “They’ll already have more experience than somebody who graduates from law school and hasn’t participated in one of these programs.”

Mekel, who will be traveling to Springfield to meet with the students regularly and assess their performance, said students will also have the advantage of receiving input on their work and areas for improvement as well as supervision from licensed attorneys and building their knowledge base.

Mekel said students will have the opportunity to test their wings while having a safety network of being a part of a class with oversight from professionals.

Basanta said law firms can’t afford to pay young lawyers to learn on the job anymore.

“They want trained people who are ready to go when they come in,” he said. “Clients are looking to hold down on the cost of getting young lawyers learn by practicing on them.”

He said students enrolled in the program will build confidence while having to perform duties such as appearing at an administrative hearing, standing before a judge and arguing their client’s case.

One of the biggest components of the program is providing the ability for students to build relationships and networks outside the classroom with practicing attorneys who know others in a jurisdiction where a student may look for work after graduation.

“To have people who know their work product in actual application who can talk about it to other professionals is a great reference for the students,” Mekel said. “At a time of tight employment, that’s a great takeaway.”

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