February 03, 2020

Legal Clinics for Paralegal Students

Keeley Mitchell, Assistant Professor, Business and Paralegal Studies, Delaware County Community College

Are you a paralegal educator seeking to provide your students with more practical field experience? Then, you may want to consider starting a legal clinic for your students. In this blog post, I present a general overview and share tips on developing and implementing a legal clinics for paralegal students.

Developing a clinical program within a paralegal studies program is no small feat. It takes time, human capital, and funding. You also must have buy-in from the administration. This may require you to educate your institution’s senior leadership about legal clinics and their value.

Those of us who attended law school may be familiar with legal clinics. We understand that law clinics generally provide legal advice to low income clients or others who do not have access to legal representation. We know that legal clinics benefit the law students who participate in them and the clients they serve. Clinical legal education allows students to see the real-world connection between legal theory and the work of practicing lawyers. This same model also can benefit future paralegals.

So, how do we replicate clinical legal education for paralegal programs, particularly, when dealing with the issue of legal advice?

Determining the Clinics to be Offered

First, you should determine the type of clinic you will offer to the community. To make this decision, we first surveyed paralegal students to find out their interests.  Overwhelmingly, students wanted a clinic that focused on criminal and family law. Other requests were for clinics concentrating on immigration, business, and constitutional law.

We then examined the needs of the population we planned to serve. Our goal was to make sure the legal clinics would align with the needs and desires of the community. We concluded that we should establish an expungement clinic as well as a clinic to assist families in various ways. Although there was a community need for immigration assistance, we did not have the resources to develop an immigration clinic. We hope to do so in the future. 

Last, due to the large number of senior citizens in our area, the program decided to develop the Wills Clinic. We felt that this would be a great opportunity for students to develop both client intake and document drafting skills.

Thus, as a result of surveying the community and students, the program created three legal clinics: Criminal Law Expungement Clinic, Family Advocacy Clinic, and Wills Clinic.

The Issue of Legal Advice

In developing and implementing a legal clinic for a paralegal studies program, you need to be careful not to create an environment that encourages the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). We had this concern, and when we setup the clinics at Delaware County Community College(DCCC). However, ultimately UPL was not as big of an issue as we initially expected.

Licensed attorneys must oversee  law students participating in legal clinics. Likewise, paralegal students  must be supervised by a licensed attorney.  To ensure our program did not violate the rules of professional conduct, we used licensed attorneys to oversee the students participating in the clinics.

When we recruited clinical supervisors, we turned first to attorneys teaching in our program as adjuncts. Adjunct faculty agreed to supervise the Family Advocacy Clinic and the Wills Clinic. I will discuss the compensation of adjuncts later under Securing Resources.

After the adjunct instructors agreed to serve, we looked to partner with local legal aid organizations. For our Criminal Law Expungement Clinic, we partnered with the Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP). Two LASP attorneys, along with one of our adjuncts, supervise student work for this clinic.

Legal clinics provide paralegal students with a range of practical legal experiences.

Legal clinics provide paralegal students with a range of practical legal experiences.

Positioning Your Clinic(s) in Your Program

From an educational point of view, you will need to determine how to position your clinics in your program. Will the clinics be connected to a specific course? Or, will the clinics be an optional opportunity for your students ? There are a number of ways to offer this experience ranging from  clinics being presented as an extracurricular activity and incorporating t this learning experience into the academic curriculum. Each paralegal program should determine which option works best for its students. The advantages of the two key models are presented below.

 Clinical Model

Pros

Volunteer/Extracurricular Activity

Participating students are likely to be highly motivated because they have chosen to participate.

The Program may be selective as to participants to ensure quality client representation.

Incorporated into the Academic Program

There is consistently a large student pool so there will be adequate staffing of the clinic.

All students interested in a particular area of law are provided on-the-job experience.

 

The clinical program at DCCC utilizes versions of both options.  Our students must apply to and be accepted in the Family Advocacy Clinic. The students enrolled in the elective Estates, Wills, and Trusts course are required to participate in the Wills Clinic. Students who do not take Estates, Wills and Trusts Students who do not take the course can apply to participate in the clinic.

We created the Criminal Law Expungement Clinic as an optional opportunity like the Family Advocacy Clinic. Historically, this clinic was an event that occurred once a semester. Due to the demand of the community, we are expanding the clinic to operate on an on-going basis. With these changes on the horizon, the clinic will now be connected to the Criminal Law and Procedure course. Similar to the way we administer the Wills Clinic, we will give students who are not enrolled in  the course the opportunity to apply to take part in the clinic.

Align Your Clinical Programs with Learning Objectives

Whether you set up your legal clinic as an extracurricular activity or incorporate it into the curriculum, you should set clear learning objectives tied to your overall program objectives. Doing so will allow you to better assess the success of your legal clinic.

Below are some common learning objectives:

Learning Objective

Purpose

Educate paralegal students about what practicing lawyers actually do

Students learn the relationship between the legal theory and the actual work of practicing lawyers.

Educate paralegal students about the influences on the real-world practice of law

Students learn how to deal with the commercial viability of parties, the inequality of wealth between parties, parties’ appetite for litigation, last minute deadlines, the implicit bias of the legal system, unfair decisions, etc.

Educate paralegal students about client interaction

Students learn how to communicate the client’s wishes to their supervising attorney, prepare legal documents, gain the trust of clients, and discover their true goals.

Educate paralegal students about the business aspects of the practice of law

Students develop experience with time keeping, billing, and case management.

 

Securing Resources

As previously mentioned, you need to locate licensed attorneys willing to supervise your students. The attorneys can come from your faculty or the local legal community. Often the problem is not finding attorneys; it is determining how to compensate them for their time. Finding funding may be one of the biggest hurdles you face.

In DCCC’s clinical program, some lawyers donate their time, while others are compensated.  It depends on the clinic. For example, our Family Advocacy Clinic is an on-going clinic that has its own offices. Through fundraising, the attorney overseeing this clinic is compensated for his time. The adjunct faculty member who oversees the Wills Clinic receives a stipend for his work because the clinic only occurs once a year.

Our Criminal Law Expungement Clinic is a partnership with LASP. The LASP attorneys are compensated by their employer. One of our adjunct instructors donates his time to the clinic. However, as the clinic transitions to be an on-going project, we are considering how to compensate the adjunct for his involvement.

In addition to securing financial resources, you also have to obtain other resources. First, developing and implementing a legal clinic takes tremendous time. Whether it is meetings with key stakeholders or outlining the processes and procedures for the clinic, it is time intensive. If you are a one-person paralegal program, I should enlist the assistance of others. You will need to effectively manage your human capital. The key to success will be learning the strengths and weaknesses of your team. I recommend having a practice area content expert on your team, along with team members who are strong in the areas of budgeting, assessment and project management.

If possible, try to include someone from senior leadership on your team. Buy-in from senior leaders is essential to accomplishing the goal of creating a legal clinic. A senior leader  can not only help with facilitating communication with other administrators but also can serve as an advocate on your behalf, especially when you are requesting college resources.

Conclusion

I want to conclude with 7 Practical Tips for developing and implementing a legal clinic for a paralegal studies program. Know that it will be a difficult journey, but it will be well worth it. And if you ever need advice or someone to vent to, reach out to me. I get it.

 

7 Practical Tips for Establishing a Legal Clinic in a Paralegal Studies Program

1.      Locate attorneys that will be able to supervise the work of the paralegal students to avoid any possibility of the unauthorized practice of law.

2.      Survey your students and local community to determine the type of clinics you should offer.

3.      Weigh the costs and benefits of creating a legal clinic that is extracurricular or immersed within the academic curriculum.

4.      Set learning objectives that align with your overall program’s objectives and build the legal clinic around these objectives.

5.      Involve internal and external partners, such as senior leadership and legal organizations, to help develop your clinical program.

6.      Be efficient in how you allocate resources: time, money and human capital are not unlimited.

7.      Try not to let your fear and aversion risk take over: the hard work and risk is worth it.