Grantee Spotlight:
Bringing the Law to Life: Idaho's Citizens' Law Academy Connects the Legal Profession with the Public

The mission of the Idaho Law Foundation (the Foundation) is to help the legal profession serve the public. One way this mission is accomplished is through the Foundation's Law Related Education Programs (LRE). Law related education is one of four priorities of the Idaho IOLTA program. In keeping with these priorities, the Foundation's LRE is a recipient of IOLTA funding.

Started in 1985 as a public service program of the Idaho Law Foundation, Idaho's LRE is part of a national program that began in 1978 when Congress passed the Law Related Education Act.

LRE sponsors educational programs for Idaho citizens of all ages that offer participants an avenue to:

  • Understand the law, court procedures, and our legal system;
  • Recognize the rights and responsibilities of citizenship;
  • Foster positive attitudes about law as the basis of a democratic society; and
  • Appreciate the processes through which people become positive, participating members of their communities.

A Goal of Public Awareness

In early 2000, the Idaho State Bar and the Foundation convened a joint committee known as the Public Information Committee to promote public awareness on the nature of the legal system, the importance of the rule of law, and the essential role of the lawyer in a just society.

It was the Committee's belief that the practice of law and its relevance to the general public was not understood by many the state's citizens. To address this issue, the Committee began exploring ways to demystify and humanize the legal process. They wanted to create an educational outreach program that would help the public understand:

  • The laws affecting their daily lives and their rights under the law;
  • What lawyers do and how they serve the public; and
  • How the judicial system works and how problems are resolved through the legal system.

To address these lofty goals, the Committee crafted the Citizens' Law Academy (CLA).

How the Citizens' Law Academy Operates

Patterned after the highly successful Citizen Police Academy, the Citizens' Law Academy is a 10- to 12-week public information program developed and delivered through a partnership among the Idaho State Bar, the Idaho Law Foundation, and District Bar Associations. The weekly evening classes are offered in various parts of the state in the fall or the spring. Classes typically run for two hours.

The program is staffed by volunteers from the legal community. Volunteers include practicing attorneys, judges, and staff from the Bar and Foundation who serve as faculty and discussion leaders. Topics are selected by the Public Information Committee and modified to be applicable to citizens in various areas of the state.

Members of the Public Information Committee and leadership of the Fourth District Bar Association write the curriculum, program goals, and objectives. They evaluate class materials and invite participating faculty. The program is run by volunteers from District Bar Associations and staff from the Idaho Law Foundation

The Citizen's Law Academy is offered at no charge to its participants because the Bar Association and the Idaho Law Foundation underwrite the cost of the program. This program receives IOLTA funding as a project of the Foundation's LRE Program. Though these sources sustain the program at present, Idaho's US District Court provided funding through a grant program in the past.

Citizens' Law Academy Topics

While the specific topics covered vary depending on which District Bar Association is organizing the Academy, core topics include:

  • The Foundation of Our Legal System: Taught by a federal judge, this class includes a discussion of the historical basis of our legal system, the Constitution and the importance of the rule of law. The speaker walks the participants through real-life examples of how our Constitution and legal system have been tested and proven.

  • Our Modern Court System: Taught by a district judge, this class provides an overview of our court system and insight into the various roles of judges and staff members who work for the courts.

  • Cops and Bad Guys: Truth v. Fiction in Criminal Cases: Taught by a prosecutor and a public defender, this class uses a fictitious criminal case to discuss the typical procedures and rights involved in a criminal case from the investigative stage through arrest, prosecution, and conviction.

  • Throwing in the Towel: The Process Of Bankruptcy: Lead by a bankruptcy judge, this class explores the basics of bankruptcy law and the ins and outs of bankruptcy proceedings.

  • Truth and Consequences: The Challenges of Criminal Sentencing: Lead by a federal judge, this session guides participants through the process of sentencing convicted criminal defendants. The class provides an analysis of factors considered in sentencing, mandatory guidelines, and differences between the federal and state processes.

  • Arguing for a Second Opinion: The Appeal Process: Taught by an Idaho Supreme Court Justice, participants learn the process of appealing a trial court decision.

  • All in a Day's Work: Employment Law: Two attorneys who specialize in the practice of employment law use fictitious employment discrimination claims to launch a discussion on the evolution of a civil lawsuit from the filing of a complaint to trial.

  • Judging the Judges: Judicial Selection and the Rules of Judicial Conduct: A member of Idaho's Judicial Council leads a discussion on the judicial selection process and the Rules of Judicial Conduct that govern judges.

  • How Lawyers are Governed: Bar Counsel for the Idaho State Bar discusses how lawyers are admitted to the Bar, how they are governed, and the procedures and rules involved.

  • Is It Really Like the Movies? A panel of attorneys critiques clips from popular movies and discusses what really happens in and out of the courtroom.

Some of the courses are videotaped so that participants can preview and review a tape, if they are unable to attend a session. At the beginning of each session, participants are given a binder with basic materials for the course, including a syllabus. The program ends with a graduation celebration at which time participants may invite their families to meet the staff and volunteers involved with the program.

Citizens' Law Academy Participants

Citizens' Law Academy is opened to anyone 18 years or older. Two months prior to the program, applications are made available to the public. The application includes questions to help organizers understand the backgrounds and levels of interest from potential participants. These applications are screened by members of the District Bar organizing the Law Academy; they look for a broad cross section of people to ensure wide demographic profiles, a high level interest from the applicants, as indicated from their response to questions, as well as, their involvement in their communities, and a commitment to attendance. Typically 25 to 35 people participate in a session.

Participants have an opportunity to evaluate each of the sessions, as well as provide overall program feedback. These evaluations are used to make any necessary adjustments to future programs. To date, the Academy has been rated very highly by the attendees.

Often Academy graduates go on to volunteer with other Bar and Foundation activities, such as serving as non-attorney members of our standing committees or acting as non-attorney judges for our mock trials. Said one participant, Jan Cottrell, "If there were a follow-up series I would take that too. I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed each week. The ten weeks flew by. I was hooked from the first week. Our speaker made the Constitution come to life. Each week I continued to be amazed at the people who volunteer their time to make CLA such a success."

Conclusion

Programs like Citizens' Law Academy seek to create a bridge between the legal profession and the public at large. Thanks to programs like this one, more and more of Idaho's citizens can begin to have an accurate understanding of the important work of members of our legal community, one Citizens' Law Academy session at a time.

Carey Ann Shoufler has worked in education and communications for over 20 years. Since 2005, she has served as the Development and the Law Related Education Director for the Idaho Law Foundation. She obtained her Bachelor's Degrees in English Literature from Mills College in Oakland, California and her Master's Degree in Instructional and Performance Technology from Boise State University. For questions about Citizens' Law Academy, you can email Carey Ann Shoufler or call 208/334-4500.