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December 08, 2021

Legal education innovations emerge as regulatory landscape changes

For nearly a decade, Michelle Pistone, a law professor at Villanova University, has directed the school’s Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services. But these days, Pistone is most excited about a new program that doesn’t deal directly with law students and lawyers. Rather, she runs an entirely online education program, launched in August, which takes advantage of a little-known federal immigration regulation that allows nonlawyers to provide low-cost legal representation to migrants.

At a Dec. 7 webinar “The Role of Legal Education, Clinics and Legal Labs,” the Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA) was cited as an example of the type of initiative that the nation’s law schools can offer to boost access to justice. Three other law professors joined Pistone at the virtual panel, which was part of the Redesigning Legal Speaker Series sponsored by the American Bar Association and two other national organizations.

“We are so early in the process of thinking about paraprofessionals and the law that we can’t even imagine” the opportunities in other areas, Pistone said. Her Villanova program has attracted students as young as 21 and as old as 86. If you have a “new mindset,” she added, “the possibilities are endless at this point.”

VIISTA is designed to meet the demand for immigrant representatives by taking advantage of a long-standing but overlooked facet of federal immigration law that allows non-lawyers approved by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to represent migrants in immigration court. Called “accredited representatives,” these non-lawyers work at recognized organizations, including the ABA Immigration Justice Project, which are permitted by DOJ to provide low-cost legal representation to migrants.

The growing acceptance of technology is one of the key drivers of change in the legal profession and its regulatory landscape, which has for decades put up barriers to nonlawyers.

Utah and Arizona, for example, have already enacted sweeping changes to how legal services can be delivered and who can provide them. Nationally, no fewer than 10 other states are in different stages of exploring or implementing regulatory change that would generally allow nonlawyers to provide some legal services.

“Lawyers are using technology to be more efficient and to service their clients in more equitable ways,” said April Dawson, associate dean of Technology and Innovation at North Carolina Central University School of Law. She noted that the schools that are making “great strides … are creating centers, creating institutions,” often with strong outside funding.

She advocated for law schools to connect more with bar groups and others pushing change. “We need to look what is actually happening on the ground,” she said, adding academics can’t “get wrapped up in our ivory towers.”

Panelist Stacy Butler, director of the Innovation for Justice Program at the University of Arizona, picked up on the need for grassroots involvement for law students. She has two decades of experience in community advocacy and expanding the reach of civil legal services for under-served populations, and she is involved with innovative programs in both Arizona and Utah.

Butler outlined three components to keep in mind. First, regulatory reform should be leveraged for legal empowerment for underserved groups. Second, these efforts need leadership from the top as evidenced by state Supreme Court backing in Arizona and Utah. And those working with the underserved need to show “empathy” with their clients.

Anna Carpenter, professor of law and director of Clinical Programs at the University of Utah law school, also praised the leadership of the court system in Arizona and Utah. And she offered several factors that would help bring about change at the law school level.

“Invest in human beings,” she said, adding that effective change requires “human capital” and deep expertise; “faculty unicorns” or professors who are committed to driving the “groundbreaking efforts;” and “an innovative dean who gets it … is a true believer himself.”

The hour-long program was the fourth in the Redesigning Legal Speaker Series since its launch in June. Other co-sponsors are the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver (IAALS) and Legal Hackers, in addition to support from three ABA entities: Center for Innovation, Center for Professional Responsibility and the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services.