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Dean's Desk: Legal clinics cultivate essential lawyering skills

October 21, 2015

deans desk lyonI am certainly awarethat those of you reading this article know what legal clinics are and do – you all know that students in clinics learn how to interact with clients, opposing counsel and judges; but they also learn that actual clients are more important than they seem in casebooks and that their work makes a positive difference in their client’s lives. Valparaiso University Law School was among the first U.S. law schools to establish a legal clinic, and our clinics have been helping our community and students for over four decades. I wanted to take a moment to talk about some of the amazing work we are doing and how it fits in to our new curriculum that immerses students into a lawyer’s fundamental role as a counselor and communicator.

The cases handled by our clinics often concern issues of poverty, race and gender, and students do more than merely discuss the intersection of race, gender, class and the law while working in our clinical programs. Two of our clinics were recently featured in the media and capture the impact of the clinic’s work. Our Civil Clinic has represented more than 100 defendants throughout Porter County, Indiana, against the deceptive tactics being used to collect bad debts. The result of this work has been the dismissal of more than $250,000 worth of debt over the last four years. In July, our Immigration Clinic won asylum for a former Eritrean military school student who had been imprisoned and tortured for speaking out against favoritism toward pro-government students. These are just two recent examples of the work our clinic does every day. We have nine clinics, where students learn first-hand about promoting justice, not in theory or through discussion with colleagues, but in the courtroom, during mediation sessions, in client consultations or in writing briefs for clients who are depending on them.

Among the clinical and academic communities, there is debate regarding how these valuable clinical programs should be structured. This includes questions about how many students should work on a given case, case selection, and what areas of practice are best for learning.

One difficult question regarding how law school clinics are structured is what kinds of cases should be accepted. Many law school clinics specialize in specific practice areas, giving students the ability to choose between civil litigation clinics, child advocacy clinics, criminal law clinics, and the like. However, what I believe the question really means is whether a criminal clinic should take shoplifting cases or death penalty appeals, or both; should civil litigation clinics accept landlord-tenant cases, or complex consumer fraud litigation with third-party plaintiffs and defendants? These are really questions about the scope and size of the cases.

Many legal educators and clinical professors believe the best cases for students to learn from are small ones with a limited scope that can be easily resolved by one or two students. Smaller cases give students the chance to handle every aspect of the case from the intake interview with the client, to hearings, and in negotiations with opposing counsel. Cases that are small in scope enable students to learn how each tactical decision and choice they make works in relation to the overall strategy they have designed for the case. These cases also give students the opportunity to feel responsible for a case and to a client and to drive the case to resolution while they are still in law school.

Working on large cases also presents valuable learning opportunities for law students. Students will experience how to do a portion of a case and a specific set of tasks to learn how those fit into the larger plan for the case. Additionally, large cases taken by law school clinics often involve interesting and important legal issues. For example, a law school clinic may be able to take on a lawsuit in which there are unlikely to be financial rewards, but where the legal issue is of great import – such as challenging the way in which child care benefits are being provided (or not provided) to the working poor. The most significant thing a law student can learn from working on large cases is how to work as part of a legal team.

Here at Valparaiso University Law School, we believe that the best way to address these concerns (excellent pedagogy as well as legal service to the community) is to offer both kinds of opportunities. We represent individuals facing deportation, and we brief the larger issues for appellate courts. We represent people charged with minor crimes and murders, and mediate small and large cases. We strive to offer our students both kinds of learning experiences and to provide our community with a diverse set of legal services.

I cannot tell you how many clinical students tell us that working with real clients changed their legal lives – made abstractions about racial disparity and the depredations of poverty real for them, and made them see the world differently. That is because they had the opportunity to learn first-hand the humanity of their clients; to work their way through the problems of representation, whether transactional, administrative or litigation-based, and solve problems for themselves with the high-quality guidance, mentoring and support of an expert in the field.

And, there is absolutely nothing like the satisfaction students and faculty feel when a client says, “Thank you, I can stay in my home and do not have to return to a country where I will be imprisoned and tortured.”

Our clinical programs don’t always win, of course, but the battle shapes the participants, makes them more human and humane, and it ultimately makes them better lawyers.•

Andrea D. Lyon is dean and professor of law at Valparaiso University Law School. She joined the school in July 2014. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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