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Legal Clinics: What Law School Students Should Know | Education

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Participating in a legal clinic could be the highlight of a student’s law school experience. Working with clients on a broad array of legal issues, law students may come away from the clinical experience with a greater sense of duty and strong convictions about being a lawyer, some experts say. 

Christine Cerniglia, associate professor of law and director of clinical and experiential education at Stetson University College of Law in Florida, says clinical education grew out of civil rights and has evolved into training students to address legal disputes in communities where people often are unable to access lawyers. This has prompted the law profession to address systemic inequalities, she suggests.

“Now, we are living during another era of legal movements and clinical education is again at the forefront of understanding those issues, because clinicians are in the field meeting with community members and partners to truly learn and respond to legal issues,” Cerniglia wrote in an email. 

What Is a Legal Clinic?

A legal clinic is a law school program that allows students to get practical experience providing legal aid, often to underrepresented individuals or organizations, on real cases in a specific topical area under the supervision of professors. The legal services are provided at reduced or no cost.

Clinical education is not a law school requirement, but most law schools have clinics, usually for second- and third-year students, says Gabriel Kuris, owner of Top Law Coach, a law admissions consultancy, and author of the U.S. News blog Law Admissions Lowdown.

“They vary in how many they offer and the number of resources the clinics have,” he says. “Some of the bigger law schools have tons of clinics and others may have just a few. Law students are never working on cases alone, but always with a clinical professor. They can practice and develop real skills while having the support and supervision they need.”

Students pay tuition to participate in a clinic – which can last a semester or a full academic year – and typically receive academic credit.

“They get to engage with clients, they learn about confidentiality and other things,” says Krystal N. Lyons, general counsel and legal services director for San Bernadino County Superior Court and former professor at the University of La Vern College of Law in California. “It complements the other aspect of their legal education.”

Depending on the type of clinic, students may go to court, help find witnesses or draft and review legal documents.

“Many clinical students are working with clients who would not otherwise have access to an attorney or on issues to address the systemic oppression in our society,” Cerniglia says. “Each clinic class challenges students to apply the legal theory while analyzing the structural issues and balancing the humanity of the client’s case.”

Advice About Clinics for Prospective Law Students  

Prospective law students should think of clinical education as training to become a better lawyer in the practical sense and in the broader sense of studying inequities in society, Cerniglia says. Institutions that invest in clinical programs are likely prompted by both purposes, and prospective students should ask questions to determine how the law school and the larger institution support their clinical mission and programs, she says.

Lyons suggests that prospective law students talk to the faculty running the clinic to get an idea of the expectations.

Students should “do as much recon as possible before they sign up to have a better idea of what they are getting into,” she says. “Then, once they get in, I say try to learn as much as they can. It’s really going to give you a good opportunity to start learning how to be a lawyer before you are licensed to be one. And it’s always something great to put on your resume.”

Kuris advises reading a law school’s website, researching the clinics and professors, and using search engines to find clinics that work on high-profile issues.

“Once you’re down to some schools you are accepted to or excited about, I would suggest reaching out to professors or to students who are in the clinics, or other connections, to learn more about what the work of the clinic is like,” he says. “When you are first applying, be mindful about clinics. When you start law school, ask around, especially instructors, and start thinking ahead to which clinic will best fit your goals.”

Signs of a Law Clinic’s Strengths, Weaknesses

A strong clinical program should have “full-time dedicated faculty members working on real cases and legal issues who are trained in both teaching in the classroom space and practicing in their respective legal field,” Cerniglia says.

Such programs are usually a source of pride at law schools because of the good work they do in the community and how they foster student development, and they often are strongly supported by alumni.

Clinic students are usually evaluated by the quality of their writing and other metrics so it’s worth asking how they engage with clients and if they complete assignments on time, Lyons says. “A clinic is really a law firm at the school. You evaluate them the same way you evaluate a good law firm: Do they keep good data, do they provide service to the community, how many people do they service, do people know about them, do they have good metrics for evaluating student performance?”

A bad clinic may have faculty who have issues with the state bar and inadequate funding, while a good clinic gets donor support from third parties, like corporations and alumni, experts say. 

“Weak clinical programs may not have the same institutional support or full-time faculty, or there is a larger student-teacher ratio,” Cerniglia says. “The best practice is between 5-10 students in the clinic course for every one professor. While some schools may say this type of classroom structure is expensive, that theory should be challenged to inquire where the institution invests funds.”

Kuris recommends looking closely at how well a clinic fits you and your interests and needs.

“Often, students attempt to focus on the substantive legal issues involved, like the kind of legal field,” he says. “But also think about things like, will you be working directly one-on-one with clients or will you be working on structural issues, research projects” or other work relevant to your career goals, he advises.

Most schools offer numerous clinics, each focusing on a particular topic such as transactional law, corporate law, social justice, immigration, criminal law, domestic violence, wrongful conviction, international human rights or tax law.

As a student at Harvard Law School in Massachusetts, Kuris participated in the International Human Rights Law Clinic, visiting Singapore and Thailand to work on free speech issues. He says that clinical experience, though valuable, involved research on broader issues rather than directly assisting with legal cases.

“Compare that to some of my friends who worked on appealing wrongful convictions who would meet their clients in prison,” he says. “Fifteen years later, they are still in touch with the client they helped get out of prison and it changed both their lives.”

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