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Unpublished Paper
Teaching Ethics in Criminal Justice to First Year Law Students: Or Efforts to Dislodge the CSI Effect
ExpressO (2012)
  • Susan Rutberg

Teaching Ethics in Criminal Justice to First Year Law Students:

Or Efforts to Dislodge the CSI Effect[1]

Susan Rutberg[2]


This article discusses the implementation of an innovative first year course at Golden Gate University School of Law entitled “Lawyering Skills: Ethics in Criminal Justice.” The course, offered for the first time in the spring of 2011, was the product of curricular reform set in motion by the 2007 Carnegie Foundation Report, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law. Golden Gate University has had a longtime focus both on practical legal education and ethical training. We devote a substantial portion of our resources to clinical programs and simulation courses. These opportunities, however, are generally only available to students in their second or third years. In assessing the import of the Carnegie Report, our faculty focused on the Report’s critique of the traditional first year. In particular, we sought a “counterbalance” to help students bridge the gap between theory and practice early in their legal education. Thus the creation of a seminar style Lawyering elective, required in the first year. My course, Ethics in Criminal Justice, was one of twelve offered.

These courses were designed with several overarching goals: an emphasis on skills and values, and the integration of ethics and professionalism. Beyond these general principles, I had personal goals of my own. As a longtime public defender, and former director of a law school innocence project, I wanted to dispel the myths and stereotypes about criminal practice generated by popular culture. Further, I wanted students considering a career in criminal justice to understand the complexities of the practice; to recognize the necessity of cultural literacy; and to comprehend the risk of miscarriages of justice inherent when prosecutors or defense attorneys make even “minor” compromises to their ethical obligations. In the end, although my goals of inspiring “best practices” of prosecutors and defense attorneys proved difficult to measure, I write this article to share aspects which were effective and the lessons I learned in how to make such a course more successful.

This article begins with a discussion of my background in the criminal justice system and the goals which drove the design of this simulation based lawyering course with a focus on ethical criminal practice. Next the article examines the implementation of this course, including efforts to understand student assumptions and belief systems; simulations; topical panel discussions; and student facilitated discussion. In the third section I describe the assessment process. In conclusion I discuss which pedagogical techniques borrowed from clinical teaching proved most successful in an effort to provide an experience for first year students that can help tip the scales of a legal education toward “cultivating the humanity of the student” and away from the “student’s re-engineering into a legal machine.”


[1] @ Susan Rutberg 2011

[2] Professor of Law; Director of Externship Clinical Programs; Academic Director of Honors Lawyering Program, Golden Gate University School of Law. Thank you to Sarah Einhorn (GGULS 2012) who served as both teaching assistant for Lawyering: Ethics in Criminal Justice and research assistant for this article.

  • Ethics,
  • criminal justice,
  • first year law students,
  • teaching
Publication Date
July 19, 2012
Citation Information
Susan Rutberg. "Teaching Ethics in Criminal Justice to First Year Law Students: Or Efforts to Dislodge the CSI Effect" ExpressO (2012)
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