Inside Professor Grace Giesel's Professional Responsibility course

Grace Giesel in class
Professor Grace Giesel

A semester in Professor Grace Giesel’s Professional Responsibility course can be an eye-opening experience. 

That’s because — unlike the other law courses students have taken thus far — Professional Responsibility focuses on the legal profession’s disciplinary process.

“For many of them, this is the first time they’ve thought about how they’ll fit in their professional life,” says Giesel, Bernard Flexner Professor and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the Brandeis School of Law. “I love teaching it because it’s the one class where my students are learning about their own conduct as opposed to what they can do for their clients.”

Giesel, an expert in legal ethics, uses her course as a “reality check” for students.

She kicks off the course by providing the facts of recent disciplinary cases heard by the Kentucky Supreme Court. She then has her students vote on the discipline they believe should be administered. 

“The whole point of this is to get them thinking about what should happen,” Giesel says. “I let that set the tone for the class.”

It was beneficial to see how rules of conduct were applied to real cases, says Brandeis Law student Elizabeth Penn, who took Giesel’s course in the fall of 2017.

“She’s such an expert in the field and has such experience,” says Penn, referring to Giesel’s past role as chair of the Kentucky Bar Association’s Ethics Committee. Giesel also wrote Mastering Professional Responsibility, a treatise on legal ethics. The second edition of that book came out in 2015.

Giesel says her commitment to legal ethics comes from a desire for the legal profession to remain a respected one. 

“I’d really like the bar to be a respected and honored profession, and this is one way I can help that happen,” she says.

Professional responsibility is essential for all lawyers, but it can be even more important for lawyers in relatively small markets.

Although Louisville is the largest legal market in the state, it is often described as a big city with a small-town feel. That makes a lawyer’s reputation hugely important, Giesel says.

Judges and opposing counsel will know an attorney’s reputation, and “what you do has a long life,” Giesel says.

“If you stand in front of a judge and don’t have a history of being trustworthy, that judge isn’t going to give you an inch,” she says.

Giesel makes sure to drive home that message in her Professional Responsibility course.

“You really do need to be careful,” she tells her students, warning them that improper behavior can cost more than a client: it can cost a career.