Competing for Experience

Vol. 39 No. 6

By

Margaret Littman is a writer and editor who frequently writes for the ABA Journal, Crain’s Chicago Business, and other publications.

Legal aid clinics and other clinical education are great prep for real-world lawyering, if you can nab a coveted spot.

If you had asked Lauren E. Wallace what kind of law she planned to practice when she was enrolling in the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) David A. Clarke School of Law, she might have answered with a lot of possibilities, but tax law would not have been one of them.

Now a 3L at UDC (and president of the student bar association), Wallace, who had worked as a rape hotline service coordinator after undergrad (at West Virginia University), has a new appreciation of tax law. She has completed two legal aid clinics at UDC, one in the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic and the other in the Community Development Clinic, and found she has an affinity for numbers.

“I never would have dreamt that I would want to do tax,” says Wallace, who learned to help low-income populations prepare their tax returns during her first clinic.

Legal aid clinics like UDC’s taxpayer program are offered at law schools across the country, designed to help law students gain real-world experience before they graduate and take the bar exam. The programs vary by school, but generally offer 2Ls and 3Ls semester- and yearlong internships working with indigent populations on a variety of topics. Most programs have a “direct or live client” service component, which, in many cases, is the law student’s first opportunity to work with a client rather than on a hypothetical case. Some schools also include externships, where students work with law firms off campus, and simulation programs as part of the clinical offerings. But most often clinical education refers to serving in a first-chair capacity with a live client on a real case.

Advocates of clinical education say these programs round out the educational experience and help provide justice for those who can’t otherwise obtain counsel.

“The students find it tremendously rewarding,” says Patricia E. Roberts, director of Clinical Programs and director of Parents Engaged for Learning Equality (PELE) at William & Mary School of Law in Williamsburg, Virginia. “They come to law school wanting to help people and don’t see that in the classroom. This is often their first opportunity to become vested working with real people with real emotions.”

In addition, says Michael Pinard, professor of law and codirector of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, clinical education programs help law schools fulfill their mission to serve their communities by focusing the programs on those who are unable to afford legal services.

 

More Than a Class

Most schools report students spend about 10 hours per week on clinic, but Wallace says at UDC it is not unusual to exceed that and even to have traditional class exams moved to accommodate clinic courtroom schedules. According to a 2007–08 report by the Center for Applied Legal Education, legal clinic students provide an estimated 2.4 million hours of free legal services annually.

“Clinics require extensive time commitment,” agrees Christine N. Cimini, the Ronald V. Yegge clinical director and associate professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, which is in the process of adding its seventh in-house clinic to its offerings. “They help students learn to deal with the unpredictability of real life lawyering. They have real clients with issues and there is real responsibility and consequences to what they are doing.”

Some schools, like Maryland, have clinical education requirements that each student must meet to graduate. Maryland has close to 20 live client offerings to meet demand, as well as legal theory classes. Other schools have a more limited number of offerings, in part because the student-teacher ratio for clinics must be much lower than it is for traditional classrooms, says Desiree Hensley, director of the Civil Legal Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law. (Teachers oversee the student’s client work. Typically there are 8 to 12 students in each clinic, sometimes as few as 3.) At these schools there are more students interested in participating in a clinic than there are slots available. Some use a lottery to help place students, others have a formal application system, while others, such as the University of Mississippi, are strictly first come, first served.

At the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, one-third of students complete a clinic course, which include a Civil Litigation Clinic, Community Development Clinic, Criminal Justice Clinic, and Health Law Clinic, says Ken Margolis, director of the CaseArc Integrated Lawyering Skills Program and codirector of the Law Clinic Center. When externships are added into the tally, almost the entire student body has some form clinical experience before graduation, he says.

Externships and internships do provide hands-on experience, but they don’t include the classroom piece as well, and being supervised by a professor while doing first-chair client work is part of what makes a clinic so valuable, experts say. “It can be scary to contemplate the practice of law. In a clinic you are taught more like a peer, and it can be a life-changing experience,” says Hensley.

At the William & Mary School of Law, clinic enrollment has increased from 24 students in 2006–07 to more than 80 students planned for 2010–11. The school added more programs for second-years and scheduled the clinical faculty to keep up with student demand. As a result, very few students have been wait listed, says Roberts.

Clinical subject areas run the gamut from family and divorce cases to community and economic development to tax preparation to real estate and housing issues to prisoner and civil rights. But students and faculty alike say students learn more than just the clinic topic. Wallace learned that she enjoyed tax and enjoyed numbers, but she says she also learned how to bill her hours, how a small firm works, and to better appreciate the professional responsibility lawyers have when they work with clients.

“In a good clinic, you are learning how to practice the law. It does not matter what you end up doing with your career. It is going to translate to whatever you practice,” Hensley says.

 

Choosing a Clinic

Laura L. Rovner, associate professor of law in the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Denver (DU) College of Law, says that while an interest in the clinic topic is important, students ought to think about what their time in the clinic will be like, and the kinds of work they want to do. Among other projects at DU, Rovner oversees the clinic that handles prisoners’ rights issues, a topic of importance in Colorado, which is home to the only federal Supermax prison (ADX) in the country. Students who participate in Rovner’s clinic may not go on to practice law relating to prisoners’ rights. But the clinic teaches them essential skills, such as how to come in and work with a team on an ongoing case and how to leave notes that a future colleague may not need for several years. Prisoners’ rights cases may touch on terrorism, civil rights, and other topics.

Rovner urges students who have to complete an application to vie for one of DU’s clinic spots (or those at other schools) to think about the tasks they want to learn. Some clinics require more courtroom time; others may involve more legal writing. Taking these factors into consideration allows them to write the most persuasive application possible.

While students and faculty tend to be unanimously enthusiastic about the training clinics provide, students who don’t get placed in clinics shouldn’t feel that they will miss out on the real-world education. There are ways for enterprising students to create their own clinics.

 

Make Your Own Luck

Samantha J. Orvis, a 3L at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, wasn’t lucky when it came to being assigned a clinic. After her first year, she applied for one of the school’s clinics, and wasn’t accepted, as there are slots for just 25 to 30 students. However, she made her own luck. Detroit has a lot of opportunities outside of law school campuses and she found one working with Lakeshore Legal Aid, helping to counsel indigent clients who call the group’s advocacy hotline.

“I enjoyed being at the hotline more than any other part of my legal education,” says Orvis, who echoes what many students say about their first live client interaction.

For those who get discouraged about the competiveness of their school’s clinics, Orvis is optimistic. “It does not matter what the economy is like, the opportunities are always there.” She recommends that students who want to find a legal aid placement reach out to organizations even if they don’t have an opening listed on a website.

Orvis isn’t the only one who created her own clinical path. Jessica Chiappone, a 3L at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Florida, is in the process of starting a pilot program through the school’s children and family clinic. In conjunction with Broward County Legal Aid, her clinic will represent children at expulsion and suspension hearings in front of their school boards. Chiappone started the program after learning that the children and family clinic handled more divorce work than the kinds of children’s issues that interested her. Four students have already stepped forward and expressed interest in participating, and she is optimistic that the now pilot program will expand in future semesters.

Adds Orvis: “Students need to be proactive to make their own opportunities. But as law students, their expertise will be valuable.”

“A lot of us felt like clinic ruined us for some other internships,” jokes UDC’s Wallace. “You have your clients, then you go to internships where you do not have clients. Clinical experience is the best thing about law school.”

 

Law School Clinics under Fire

In recent months, law school clinics have come under attack in the courts, threatening to jeopardize clinical training for students looking to get hands-on, courtroom experience.

 

March 2010. Some Maryland senators were so incensed about a pollution lawsuit filed by an environmental legal clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law that they threatened to withhold $250,000 in funding unless the students revealed clients in other suits.

April 2010. In Louisiana, legislators began considering a bill that would prohibit any law school clinic at a public or private university that receives state money from suing a government agency or seeking monetary damages from an individual or business. This proposal seemed directed at Tulane University Law School’s environmental clinic, whose students and lawyers have successfully litigated dozens of suits against industrial polluters and other environmental offenders.

October 2010. In New Jersey, a real estate developer sued a state-financed environmental law clinic at Rutgers School of Law seeking its internal documents, after the clinic sued to stop the developer’s planned strip mall.

 

What is the ABA’s response?

Resolution 100A will be considered at the 2011 Midyear Meeting in Atlanta. Presented by the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Resolution 100A reaffirms the ABA’s support for the ethical independence of law school clinical programs and courses and opposes outside efforts to interfere with clinics representing unpopular clients or causes.

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